Where Have All the Charges Gone?

More than two years have elapsed on the journey that won't end - the investigation and trial of former president Moshe Katsav.

More than two years have elapsed on the journey that won't end - the investigation and trial of former president Moshe Katsav, which was supposed to have ended with his confession, conviction and plea bargain. Since the case broke in July 2006, it has remained on the agenda, except for brief interludes.

In January 2007, 18 months ago, after months of investigation, the attorney general decided to place Katsav on trial, pending a hearing. The indictment charged Katsav with rape, a crime which carries a maximum prison sentence of 16 years and requires proof of full sexual intercourse without consent. He was also charged with forceful molestation, with a maximum prison sentence of seven years, and which also counts as a violation of the law against sexual harassment.

In addition, Katsav was accused of engaging in illicit consensual sex while exploiting his position over a subordinate, for which the maximum punishment is three years in prison. The Supreme Court ruled in another case that in order to convict someone of that crime, it must be proved that the sexual conduct indeed involved exploitation of authority. The court ruled that "authority" is not enough; the prosecution must prove "exploitation" of that "authority." "Exploitation" can ostensibly be inferred from the gap in ages and power.

Much water has passed under this case's bridge since then. Katsav's hearing led to a plea bargain, with a toned-down indictment that retained a weak echo of the rape accusations, and charges of indecent acts and sexual harassment. The serious crimes described in the original indictment vanished into oblivion. The State Prosecutor's Office went out on a limb to defend the plea bargain in the High Court of Justice, against petitions opposing it. It recounted at length the problematic aspect of the evidence in order to justify a deal that appeared unreasonable and failed to reflect the gravity of the actions at hand.

The plea bargain managed to squeak through the High Court by a 3:2 majority. Katsav's decision to back out of the deal, when it was brought to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court for approval, tossed the ball back in the court of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, and the Justice Ministry team. More than three whole months have gone by since then.

The State Prosecutor's Office, which has been dealing with the case for two years, has yet to file the indictment, although it will presumably be filed. Katsav, for his part, continues to be a former president, with all the perks this entails. He recently had a craving for a lavish office and a fancy car. Former presidents are granted their privileges by the Knesset Finance Committee, and it is the body authorized to cancel them. That would evidently follow a conviction for an offense involving moral turpitude. The committee also has the power to suspend benefits when an indictment is filed.

The attorney general has made clear that the Finance Committee is the only body that may decide on the matter. He told the Finance Ministry accountant general, who may decide how benefits are granted, to take into account "among other things, the proceedings pending against Katsav."

The accountant general took the circumstances of the case into consideration and did not satisfy Katsav's every desire, but still left him the bulk of benefits. The reason: at this stage - two years after the investigation was launched and three months after Katsav changed his mind about the plea bargain - no proceedings are pending against him. The original indictment has blown away, evidently, and has yet to bloom again. The amended indictment, which was part of the plea bargain with the president, is dead and gone. And a new indictment is nowhere. The former president is at most somebody against whom an indictment was once filed.

This state of affairs cannot possibly continue. The Justice Ministry's top officials may be busy with the Olmert-Talansky affair and other important matters. But even so, the time has come to decide whether to put the former president on trial.

It is not hard to imagine that the State Prosecutor's Office is debating charges, trying to determine which stand a reasonable chance of bringing a conviction. Naturally, this is a difficult issue due to the passion the prosecution invested in its reply to the High Court of Justice petitions, seeking to justify the plea bargain.

But the time to decide has arrived. The attorney general must decide without delay, one way or another, whether to place Katsav on trial. Principles of justice and judicial fairness require that the decision not be held up any longer.