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Some 20,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square last night to protest against the plea bargain that spared outgoing president Moshe Katsav from rape charges and possible jail time.

In the plea deal reached last Wednesday, the indictment against Katsav on sexual and other offenses was downgraded significantly, and a suspended sentence was pledged. The case was investigated over the past year, and recent reports had intimated that there was sufficient evidence to place Katsav on trial for rape. The decision to amend the charge sheet met with widespread consternation.

Speakers at the rally included Education Minister Yuli Tamir, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), a former MK and member of Tel Aviv's municipal council, Yael Dayan, MK Nadia Hilu (Labor), MK Limor Livnat (Likud), and representatives of women's organizations.

"Now there is no law and no justice," Tamir said in her speech. "These people [the protesters] came here out of pain, and out of a desire to see a just trial in the State of Israel."

Describing Katsav's plea deal as "an unwarranted and immoral act that sends an anti-educational message to women who have been sexually assaulted," Tamir vowed: "We won't let this issue be swept aside. As a woman and mother to daughters, I feel hurt and ashamed. I was also ashamed when I heard Katsav's lawyers encourage the complainants to return to anonymity. This case has set off a chain of events that cannot be stopped." Gal-On was both pessimistic and optimistic in her address to the crowd: "Look how many people came to say that women's bodies will not be given up to lawless abandonment. This was a bleak week for victims of sexual assault, and this was a bleak week for the judicial system in Israel. Mazuz trampled the justice that was not done .... I am very moved by the number of people; that encourages me and gives me strength. I hope this is the beginning of correcting the breakdown that occurred."

Dayan said in her address that Katsav's plea bargain turns his victims into criminals.

"We mustn't incriminate the bravest of women, who deserve a medal for the courage to complain," she said.

The demonstration ended peacefully, with the exception of a confrontation with police toward the end, when some 100 protesters blocked Ibn Gvirol Street. Six women were arrested.

The speedy organization of the rally was the work of women's organizations, but the people who showed up stressed that this was not a feminist protest.

"This is not a women's campaign, this is a battle for justice," said attorney Kineret Barashi, who represented complainant A. in the case.