Former President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual assault at Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday, as the judges ruled that his version of events was "riddled with lies."
The unanimous verdict was handed down more than four years after complaints surfaced of grave sexual offenses against various subordinates, during his terms as tourism minister and as president.
Katsav rape verdict
Katsav was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting A., a former employee at the Tourism Ministry. He was also convicted of sexually harassing H. from the President's Residence, of sexually abusing and harassing L. from the President's Residence and of obstruction of justice.
The 65-year-old former president was acquitted on only one charge - that he allegedly harassed a witness.
The year-long trial took place almost entirely behind closed doors, and left the public wondering whether Katsav made a wise move when he abruptly dropped out of an extremely lenient plea bargain two years ago.
The plea bargain meant that Katsav would not face the most serious charges and promised him a suspended sentence at worse, but the former president decided he wanted to prove his innocence in court.
As he read the verdict aloud Thursday, presiding judge George Karra said that by choosing to reject the plea bargain, Katzav had shuffled the deck, and not in his own favor.
Karra told the court that the long period of time that passed during the trial had led to new evidence arising, which supported A.'s claim and essentially discredited Katsav.
Katsav had tried to charm A., Karra determined, and when she did not respond to his overtures, he began to harass her. The defendant told the victim that he was in love with her, added Karra, and left her feeling humiliated.
"We accept A.'s version of events that the humiliation stemmed from a single reason, that she refused to accept the defendant's sexual advances," ruled the panel of judges.
"While the defense team called this a malicious plot born from A.'s desire to seek revenge against the accused for firing her, the prosecution produced a list of witnesses who testified to having heard A.'s remarks over the course of time between when the event occurred and when the case broke open," said Karra.
"These testimonies disqualify claims of slander," the judges ruled. "All of the testimonies based on what A. said contradict the defendant's claims that this was an invention born of emotion."
Katsav arrived at the court Thursday accompanied by his attorneys, Avigdor Feldman, Zion Amir and Avraham Lavie. His wife, Gila, was not present. He had no comment for reporters as he left the court after the verdict, ashen-faced and still flanked by lawyers and bodyguards. He arrived back at his Kiryat Malachi home a short time later.
The verdict read out by the panel of three judges - Karra, Miriam Sokolov and Judith Shevach - was the first judicial statement on the veracity of allegations repeated, dissected and mulled over by the Israeli population and the media for the past four years.
After an initial attempt to have the reading of the verdict closed to the media, the main substance of the ruling was read in open court, but how much of the verdict was actually to be released for publication will be decided only after the state submits its position on the matter.
Out of concern for the complainants' privacy, much of the trial had taken place behind closed doors. Some commentators predict Katsav, should he appeal, will argue that the Tel Aviv District Court proceedings were not transparent enough. The former president may appeal to the Supreme Court to contest the verdict, and what could be a lengthy jail term.
The court did not immediately hand down a date for sentencing. Rape carries a minimum prison sentence of four years and a maximum of 16 years.
Any sentences handed down for the lesser charges would likely be served concurrently, according to Israel Radio analyst Moshe Negbi.
Though the scandal had forced Katsav's early retirement in disgrace, it had no impact on Israeli government functions, as the presidency is largely ceremonial.
But the allegations against the Iranian-born leader, whose rise from the slums once served as a shining example for disadvantaged Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, stirred deep emotions in Israel, where the head of state is supposed to be a beacon of morality and national unity.
Katsav had cast himself as the victim of extortion and an ethnically-motivated "witch hunt", and had vowed to clear his name.
He immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951. At age 24, he became the country's youngest mayor and went on to hold a number of cabinet posts as a member of the rightist Likud party.
Parliament elected him president in 2000 in an upset victory over Shimon Peres, Israel's Nobel Peace Prize-winning elder statesman. Peres succeeded Katsav as president after he curtailed his term due to the allegations against him.
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