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All the signs pointed to Dr. Jacky Sarov's appeal being rejected. A magistrate's court had convicted Sarov, former head of the Emergency Medicine Department at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, of taking NIS 3,000 in bribes from well-known crime boss Assi Abutbul. And as Tel Aviv District Court President Dvora Berliner, reading her verdict on the appeal, intoned "a bribe is a bribe is a bribe," the message seemed clear to the relatives, friends and patients packing the courtroom: There was no hope.

"The elements of the crime of bribery existed in all three cases," Berliner continued. "This was a give-and-take relationship."

And that is why the courtroom was stunned when she concluded: "I will recommend to my colleagues that the sentence be a six-month jail term - which the appellant can serve via community service."

"Wow!" shouted the first member of the courtroom audience to grasp the significance. He was soon echoed by a chorus of cheers and applause.

Sarov's appeal had focused on the sentence the lower court had handed him - 15 months of actual jail time, a 15-month suspended sentence and a NIS 15,000 fine. But no one had imagined that the appeal would spare him from prison entirely.

As the news sunk in, people jostled each other in their eagerness to be the first to reach and hug him. It took a long time for Sarov to finally reach the courtroom door.

"At first it sounded terrible," one of the spectators told a friend. "I didn't believe it would end like this."

"Me neither," his friend responded. "It sounded atrocious!"

Outside the courtroom, tears rolled down Sarov's cheeks. "It feels like [I've awakened from] a nightmare," he said. "At least I won't go to jail today. I have six months of community service, which doesn't frighten me. And there's nothing I want to go back to doing more that what I love, and [which] I hope I know how to do well."

Asked what he planned to do first, he answered simply, "Get some sleep." Fear of what he faced had caused him many sleepless nights.

Berliner accepted the lower court's finding that Sarov had not been motivated by lust for money. "Take away this element, and the aspect of bribery ... takes on a different look," she wrote.

She also stressed that Sarov had not exploited Abutbul's distress in taking the payment, nor had his treatment of his other patients been impaired in any way. Both of these constituted additional reasons for reducing his sentence.

Nevertheless, Berliner said, he did accept a bribe - and therefore his conviction must stand. "The conviction reflects the moral stain, and it is not appropriate to remove this stain," she wrote. "A bribe is a bribe is a bribe, and must be seen as such."

Navot Telzur, who represented Sarov along with attorneys Yehuda Weinstein, Prof. David Libai and Ravit Tzemach, said afterward: "We want to express our esteem for the district court. Such dramatic intervention is not a standard occurrence. This is a massive correction of the [original] verdict. It's a very important step, an immediate step, toward returning Jacky Sarov to his dream. We view this as a clear hint to the Health Ministry to restore him to his job."

But prosecutor Tzahi Ouziel had a different view. "The court upheld the finding that a bribe is a bribe, that his acts involved moral turpitude, that he was ousted from Ichilov and should not return to work as a doctor in the public sector," Ouziel said. "We thought the sentence should have been a lengthy jail term. We'll study the verdict and decide what to do."