Katsav Vows to Prove His Innocence as Rape Trial Begins

Former president charged with rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment; judge: Trial to reopen in Sept.

Former president Moshe Katsav vowed to battle to prove his innocence as a unprecedented trial over sexual-offense allegations, including rape, against him began Thursday morning in Tel Aviv.

"We're embarking upon a tough, long struggle to clear my name. I promise again that with God's help, I will emerge innocent," the former president told reporters outside the Tel Aviv District Court.

Katsav was formally charged Thursday with the rape and sexual assault of a female aide while tourism minister, the sexual harassment of two other aides while president, and obstruction of justice.

Standing next to the court, he added: "From here they won't dictate my sentence without seeing me, without hearing me and without seeing all the material from the investigation.

"The prosecution has said for two years or more that it has doubts, that there is indecision, that there is a large chance for a complete acquittal. The prosecution gave a legal opinion, which it refused to publish, which strengthened my position."

Three years after the sexual-offense allegations came to light, Katsav took his seat on the defendant's bench for a reading of the indictment. The case was presided over by a panel of criminal-law experts: judges George Karra, Miriam Sokolov and Judith Shevach.

Karra ruled that a detailed response to the indictment by Katsav would be filled within 30 days, and that the trial would be reopened on September 1, despite Amir's opposition. He did not rule on a request by the prosecution to close the proceedings to the public and press, noting that a decision would be made after Katsav's response was submitted.

Katsav was indicted Thursday for two charges of rape and one charge of sexual assualt against a Tourism Ministry employee identified as A., one charge of sexual harassment of President's Residence employee H., and the indecent assault and sexual harassment of L., also a President's Residence employee. Katsav was also charged with obstructing justice in allegedly trying to glean information from L. on investigative proceedings.

Katsav's attorney, Zion Amir, said at the entrance to the courtroom that he hoped media bias against his client would not affect the trial.

After the indictment was read out, Amir said: "Our position is an absolute denial of all the charges against Mr. Katsav. This is completely certain and is not going to change."

Preparations for the trial went into high gear last week, as court spokespeople briefed photographers on protocol and security personnel prepared for possible demonstrations outside the courtroom.

Unlike previous hearings on the case, held in the small, cramped courtroom of Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, today's proceedings will be conducted in the court president's expanded quarters to make room for Israeli and foreign journalists.

On Wednesday, Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch rejected Katsav's request to relocate the trial to the Jerusalem or Be'er Sheva district courts. Katsav filed the request on the grounds that a change in venue would be bring the trial closer to his residence in Kiryat Malakhi, and that the Jerusalem venue would be more convenient for many of the witnesses expected to testify. Many of them reside in the capital or nearby.

"An examination of the indictment shows that it is would be in the comfort of many witnesses to hold the trial in Tel Aviv and the central area," Beinisch wrote.

Katsav's attorneys said in the past 48 hours they had been provided with additional evidence they had not had time to examine, including audio material of arguments between the former president and A. of the Tourism Ministry.

Last week, Tel Aviv District Court rejected the Katzav's request to delay the trial's opening, as attorneys said they had not received all the evidence collected in the case.