Katsav - Unrepentant as Ever - Begins Prison Term

Dozens of supporters and police turn up as Israel's eighth president enters Ma'asiyahu Prison.

Former President Moshe Katsav became prisoner No. 1418989 yesterday morning.

Katsav, 66, arrived at exactly 10 A.M. at Ma'asiyahu Prison to start serving his seven-year sentence for the sex offenses of rape and sexual harassment and for obstruction of justice.

Alon Ron

He arrived accompanied by his brother, son and dozens of others who came to see the former president in his last minutes of freedom. Most of them came to express their support.

Dozens of police were on hand to maintain order, and there was a large media presence from Israel and abroad.

The prison commander met the former president at the gate of the minimum security facility and accompanied inside, where he met immediately met with a prison officer who explained prison rules and discussed Katsav's personal security, including the possibility of threats against him.

Katsav then met with a social worker in a preliminary meeting to judge his mental state. He also was examined by a physician.

The Israel Prisons Service decided to place Katsav in a cell with former minister Shlomo Benizri, who is serving a sentence for taking bribes. Normally, a prison who might harbor suicidal tendencies is placed in a cell under constant camera surveillance, including its bathroom and shower. Sometimes such prisoners are handcuffed to a bed.

However, the convicted ex-president was placed with Benizri, who promised that Katsav would not be left alone, and the cameras will only operate when no one is in the room with him.

Katsav was put in in the Torani bloc for religious prisoners. While it is considered much "friendlier" than other blocs, it has its own strict rules. The prisoners awaken at 4:30 A.M. for prayers, study religious texts throughout the day and have no television or newspapers. The cell doors are left open and only locked at 10 P.M.

'Surreal situation'

Katsav gave a telephone interview to the Associated Press hours before he left his home in Kiryat Malakhi for prison. In the interview, he insisted he is an innocent man who has been faithful to his wife. The ex-president argued that the country's legal system was wrong in accepting the word of a former employee over his in absence of any physical evidence.

"It is a surreal situation that hasn't happened in any democratic country in the world," Katsav said. "They are sending an innocent man to jail, period."

The Supreme Court several weeks ago upheld a ruling by the Tel Aviv District Court that accepted the allegations against him.

Katsav said it was wrong of the legal system to convict him based on a decision to prefer one version of events over the other. "In my case there is no proof - just version against version," he said. "You can't judge a person based on impressions ... Some evidence, some proof, must be presented .... In these cases you need to bring more evidence, more proof, witnesses from real time, someone who saw something, bring DNA... there is nothing."

Katsav was convicted a year ago of raping a former employee while he was a cabinet minister in the 1990s, and sexually harassing two other women during his presidency, from 2000 to 2007.

Repeatedly professing his innocence, Katsav remained free while he appealed.

In the interview, Katsav presented himself as a victim. He suggested an array of personalities, personal enemies, political rivals and a bloodthirsty media, had conspired against him. "There was a mixture of interested factors, politicians, police," he said.

Katsav's lawyers suggested to the Supreme Court that the accusers had not proven coercion - implying that Katsav may have admitted to sexual relations with an accuser. But in the interview, the former president categorically denied being unfaithful to Gila, his wife of 42 years.

Katsav said he will "definitely continue fighting for my innocence" but would not say whether he intended to ask his successor, President Shimon Peres, for a pardon.

"Gila stands with all her strength behind me," he said. "I was faithful to my wife and I was faithful to my family. And I wish upon my children the same matrimony that Gila and I have had."

Gila Katsav has not commented publicly on the case, though she often accompanied her husband to court hearings. She was absent from his last appearance before the Supreme Court.

Katsav also argued that the trial, which was held behind closed doors, should have been open. "If they wanted to maintain the anonymity of the girls, they could have done that behind a screen," he said."

He said the accuser was "a girl who I fired after a year of work in February 1999 because she was a terrible worker," and he claimed she was out for revenge.