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World

Former Israeli president found guilty of rape

Israel's former president, Moshe Katsav, has been convicted of two counts of rape. The ruling capped a four-year scandal that shocked the Jewish state and left him facing at least four years in prison.

Moshe Katsav

Katsav faces at least four years in prison for sexual assault

A Tel Aviv court on Thursday found former Israeli President Moshe Katsav guilty of two counts of raping a former employee in 1998 when he was the country's tourism minister.

The presiding judge, George Kara, who headed a panel of three judges, took more than an hour to read out the verdict to a packed courtroom. He accused Katsav of having "engaged in a campaign of vilification against the plaintiffs".

"We believe the plaintiff, because her testimony is supported by elements of evidence, and she told the truth," he said.

As he read the verdict, which also convicted Katsav on charges of sexual harassment, indecent acts and obstruction of justice, the visibly distraught 65-year-old former president muttered "No, no."

Katsav was acquitted of only one charge - of allegedly harassing a witness.

The ruling comes after a trial that lasted a year and a half and included depictions of Katsav as a sexual predator who routinely harassed his female staff.

The former head of state was accused of twice raping a victim dubbed "Aleph" during his term as tourism minister, and sexually assaulting and harassing two other women during his presidency.

Allegations of a witch-hunt

Katsav proclaimed his innocence throughout the investigation into the rape and harassment charges, and even declined a plea agreement that would have seen him admit the lesser accusations, but have the rape charges against him dropped.

He said his accusers had attempted to blackmail him and claimed he was the victim of a media witch-hunt while pledging to clear his name in a full court trial.

"I am the victim of a lynching," he said in March 2009. "I have been humiliated, crushed, knocked down, and I suffer."

Moshe Katsav

Katsav has maintained his innocence throughout the trial

He was forced to resign from his post as president in 2007, handing the office to his former rival, Shimon Peres.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was "a sad day for the state of Israel and its citizens," but he lauded the trial as a sign of the strength of the country's legal system.

"The court today sent two clear messages: that everyone is equal before the law; and that a woman has full rights and control over her own body."

It was the first time a former president stood trial in Israel and was seen as a blow to the standing of Israel's highest office.

The rape charges against Katsav each carry a sentence of between four and 16 years in prison, and he also faces sentencing for charges of sexual harassment, one indecent act, one indecent act with force, and obstruction of justice.

The sentencing is scheduled for January, and the court ordered Katsav to surrender his passport.

Katsav could now appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, but legal expert Moshe Negbi, speaking on Israeli public radio, estimated his chances of success as "zero."

There was no comment from Katsav himself on Thursday, but defence lawyer Avigdor Feldman vowed his client "will not let up on his will to prove his innocence."

From self-made man to criminal conviction

Thursday's verdict ends an astonishing fall from grace for Katsav, who rose from impoverished origins as a child immigrant from Iran to assume the nation's top office.

One of eight children, Katsav arrived in Israel three years after the 1948 war of independence as an immigrant and became the first resident of the Kiryat Malachi tent camp for new arrivals to go on to attend Israel's Hebrew University.

For years, Katsav embodied the working class kid made good. A member of the right-wing Likud party, he was Israel's first conservative president, and also the first president of the Jewish state to have been born in a Muslim country.

Katsav struck a relatively moderate tone after becoming head of state.

Moshe Katsav

Katsav rose to power from the slums as the son of an immigrant.

He insisted that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had a role to play in the peace process at a time when he was spurned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but also played the protocol card abroad, emphasizing Israel's "right to self-defense" and warning against rising anti-Semitism.

He has been married since 1969 to his wife Gila, who has stood by him throughout the allegations and prosecution, but was not in court on Thursday. The couple has five children.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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