Israeli court convicts former president of rape, host of sexual abuse charges

08:15, December 31, 2010      

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Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav (R) is seen inside the Tel Aviv District Court as the verdict on rape and other charges of sexual misconduct against him is handed down, Dec. 30, 2010. A panel of judges in a Tel Aviv court convicted Moshe Katsav guilty of several charges of rape and other sexual abuse of female employees during his tenure both as president and as tourism minister. Katsav was elected as the president in July 2000, and resigned in July 2007. (Xinhua/POOL/Nir Elias)

An entire Israeli nation held its breath as the Tel Aviv District Court convened on Thursday morning to hand down the conviction of former president Moshe Katzav, who was found guilty of committing rape and other sexual offenses against female employees who were subordinate to him during his tenure as tourism minister in the late 1990s and later as president of the country.

Katzav, Israel's eighth president, is the first president in the country's history to be convicted of rape.

Judge George Karra, who presided over the panel of three judges, read aloud the conviction. Katzav was charged with two counts of raping "Aleph," a former Tourism Ministry employee, in 1998. " Aleph is honest and spoke the truth, while Katzav's testimony was riddled with lies," the judges concluded.

The former president was also convicted of a host of severe sexual abuse charges involving other women who have worked with him, including multiple counts of sexual assault, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice.

The former president's trial began in March 2009 behind closed doors. But it was only after the state prosecution and Katzav's defense lawyers delivered their closing statements five months ago that the judges began to examine the plaintiffs' testimonies and the evidence presented by police.

Drama ensued the reading of the historic verdict. Representatives of women's organizations, who demonstrated in front of the court in a show of solidarity with Katzav's victims, burst into cries of joy as the judges announced that Katzav is guilty of rape.

"It's a very important day and a very strong symbol in the struggle that we've been leading in the past four-and-a-half years, " said a women's rights activist. "The prosecution, together with the defense attorneys, tried to reach a plea bargain which we completely objected to."

She said the feeling among the gamut of Israeli women's rights groups was that the case had to be heard in court. "We feel satisfied today that the court actually did justice with all of these women who were severely abused by Katzav," she added.

Inside, Boaz Katzav, the former president's son, shouted at the judges "It's not true!" as his father turned to his lawyers with a shocked look.

"It's a hard moment for our family," Boaz told the dozens of reporters who crowded the vicinity. "We'll continue to be proud of our father, the entire Israeli nation will know that this trial was immoral, solely based on the judges' feelings." he said.

Ronit Amiel, who led the prosecution, issued a restrained statement, saying the verdict is a "testament to the prowess and a medal of merit to Israeli democracy, that even worldly men, presidents, will be brought to trial in case the criminal enquiry requires so to do."

In regard to the most severe charge, the judges argued that in the course of the trial they received new evidence which supported "Aleph's" testimony of having been raped on two occasions over a decade ago, while discrediting Katzav's claims that Aleph willingly consented to a sexual relationship and had sought revenge after he had fired her.

The judges criticized the evidence presented by Katzav in the form of a "love letter" he allegedly received from "Aleph" and the recording of a telephone conversation in which she expressed her affection for him. They also discredited the authenticity of love letters sent by other women, saying the women were forced to write them.

Israel's political establishment said the verdict represented a sad day for the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the court "conveyed two clear-cut messages, that all are equal before the law and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body."

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party echoed Netanyahu, saying that the ruling embodied a message to victims.

"The court's decision conveys a clear message with regard to public officials, but more importantly, a message to the victims. It's the responsibility of society to support those who mustered the courage to come out after all these years," Livni said.

"In these difficult times for Israeli society, the message should strengthen the weak in society, namely women and anyone who's victimized," she added.

Katzav now awaits sentencing, which would seal his trial. Recent changes in the criminal code for the offense of rape state a penalty of between four and 16 years' imprisonment. Since the offenses took place prior to the changes, Katzav may be handed a shorter term.

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