By ARON HELLER
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 2:30 PM
TEL AVIV, Israel -- An Israeli court sentenced former President Moshe Katsav to seven years in prison on Tuesday for raping a former employee, capping a five-year saga that turned a working-class hero into the country's highest-ranking official ever ordered to jail.
The case has riveted Israel, sparking heated debate about equality before the law, women's rights and the role of the media. Vowing to appeal, Katsav shouted at the judges: "You have committed an injustice! The verdict is untrue. It is a lie. The lies have won!"
The court ordered Katsav, 65, to report to prison on May 8, giving him time to prepare an appeal before the Supreme Court that his attorneys said they will file promptly.
Katsav has denied the charges, but the Tel Aviv court stated unequivocally that the accusers' versions of events were far more credible. Although Israel's Supreme Court has in the past overturned high-profile convictions based on reasonable doubt, most analysts predicted an uphill struggle for Katsav.
If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, Katsav could ask his successor, President Shimon Peres, for a pardon. But the chances there seem slim as well; on Tuesday Peres said the sentence "illustrates that in the state of Israel no one is above the law."
Public opinion in Israel has largely supported that view, although there have also been pockets of support for Katsav, with some people uncomfortable at the prospect of jailing an ex-president.
Presiding judge George Kara acknowledged that the spectacle of a former president going off to jail would be difficult, but argued that "we can't forget that the accused is not a victim but a victimizer." He said Katsav's acts harmed the public's trust in its officials and carried moral turpitude.
The Tel Aviv District Court convicted Katsav in December of raping a former employee and sexually harassing two other women who used to work for him - resulting in additional convictions for indecent acts and obstruction of justice.
The rape took place when Katsav served as tourism minister in the late 1990s, while other crimes occurred after he became president in 2000. The scathing ruling called him "manipulative" and said his testimony was riddled with lies.
The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in Tuesday's sentencing, with the dissenting judge favoring a lesser jail term.
The ruling said Katsav's long record of public service did not factor in his favor. Rather, the court accused him of exploiting his lofty position to become a sexual offender. Katsav was also handed a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay fines to two of his victims.
He may also face civil action that could result in much higher fines.
The sentencing capped a dramatic fall from grace for a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a symbol of success for Mizrahi Jews, or those of Middle Eastern descent, who for years were an underclass in Israel. The presidency is a largely ceremonial office, typically filled by a respected elder statesman who is capable of rising above politics and unifying the country.
Katsav has claimed he was a victim of a witch hunt driven by ethnic differences among Israeli Jews. Israel's European-descended elite - which has provided every prime minister to date - could never quite accept the ascent of a religious man who immigrated from Iran as a child, he suggested.
On the other hand, the case has widely been seen as a victory for women in a decades-long struggle to chip away at the nation's macho culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties. Outside the building, a group of women held signs with a message directed toward female victims of sex crimes, "You're not alone." The protests were clearly audible inside the courtroom.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed sorrow for Katsav's fate but lauded the sentencing. "Every woman has the right to her body, the right to respect and freedom, and nobody has the right to take these from her," Netanyahu said.
The Katsav ruling is part of an impressive record of accountability in Israel in recent years: prosecutors have won convictions of a finance minister for embezzlement, a justice minister for sexual harassment and a former labor minister for corruption. A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign to face corruption charges and his trial is ongoing.
But Katsav's trial overshadowed the others.
The case began when Katsav suddenly complained to police five years ago that a female employee was trying to extort him. She went to police with her side of the story, and other women came forward with similar complaints of sexual assaults.
Katsav, Israel's eighth president, resigned under public pressure two weeks before his term was to end in 2007. Nobel laureate and ex-prime minister Peres was elected by parliament to succeed him.
The case's twists and salacious details has captivated the Israeli public.
In one memorably bizarre press conference while he was still in office, Katsav lashed out angrily at prosecutors and the media, accusing them of plotting his demise. He shook with anger, waved a computer disk that he said proved his innocence and screamed at reporters.
Later, he rejected a plea bargain that would have allowed him to avoid jail time.
Katsav's attorneys have argued that their client did not receive a fair trial because of a hostile climate created by the media. In a minority opinion, Yehudit Shevach said these circumstances and the pain caused to the Katsav family influenced her to recommend imposing the minimum sentence for a rape conviction of four years behind bars.
Katsav's supporters are still holding out hope.
"The legal process is not over," said family friend Ronen Ben Menashe. "I think we would all be happy that the eighth president ... will come out innocent in the end."
Earlier Tuesday, a stone-faced Katsav entered the courtroom accompanied by his sons and confidantes and would not address the media. Neither his wife, Gila, nor any of his three accusers were present. He refused to sit in the dock until the cameras left and remained stoic throughout most of the reading. And he broke down in tears upon hearing his sentence.
Katsav Attorney Zion Amir said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.
Emanuel Gross, a law professor at Haifa University, said the chances of a reversal were slim.
"The Supreme Court typically does not intervene in determining the integrity of the testimony," he said. "The lower court has established his guilt."
But the split decision on Katsav's punishment opened the possibility that the Supreme Court may lessen his jail time, he added.