Minutes Before Start of Trial, Former President Reneges on Plea Bargain

Officials in the State Prosecutor's Office say that a new indictment containing more serious charges - possibly including rape - will be filed against former president Moshe Katsav either before Pesach or immediately after the holiday, following Katsav's dramatic decision yesterday to cancel the plea bargain that had downgraded the original rape charges against him to lesser sexual offenses and no jail time.

Katsav said he intends to face the charges in court and will fight to clear his name.

The trial will be the first for an Israeli head of state, past or present.

"Presumably the ramifications of this move are clear to Katsav," Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said in a brief statement a few hours after Katsav's lawyers informed him of their client's decision.

Hinting that all bets are now off, Mazuz added: "You will recall, as was stated at the time in the state's reply to the High Court of Justice, on the eve of the plea bargain, that the clear tendency was to file an indictment, including on the gravest offenses of which he was suspected, despite the difficulties this posed. Now, since the plea bargain has been canceled, the decision called for in the circumstances will be made soon."

An official involved in the case said that Katsav is clearly in a worse position now, having opened himself up to the original rape charges, and that he can expect to be sentenced to years in prison.

While a previously key complainant in the case, the former President's Residence employee known as A., is unlikely to be included in the indictment because her credibility has been severely undermined, the official said, the new indictment could include rape charges pertaining to another A., a Tourism Ministry employee at the time Katsav was minister there.

The original draft indictment (before Katsav had a hearing in front of Mazuz) accused Katsav of raping this woman on two occasions, at the minister's Tel Aviv office and at a Jerusalem hotel.

The lawyer representing A. from the Tourism Ministry, who was the first in a series of women employees who filed sexual assault complaints against Katsav, demanded yesterday that his client's complaint be included in the new indictment.

Attorney Eldad Yaniv demanded that Mazuz summon A. to discuss the matter, and said that she is prepared to confront Katsav face to face.

A.'s complaint was excluded from the original indictment after the state prosecution decided that her testimony was not sufficiently reliable due to a number of contradictions. The prosecution's decision came after the police interviewed A. and despite the fact that they decided that her testimony was in fact credible, and recommended that the prosecution indict Katsav for rape based on her testimony.

A spokesman for A., Nissim Douek, said earlier that A. welcomed Katsav's decision to forgo the plea deal, but pointed out: "We recently announced that we were planning to launch civil proceedings against Katsav, and as far as we're concerned, he would have stood trial for his actions anyway."

The accusations against Katsav emerged in the summer of 2006 when he reported to police that a former employee was trying to blackmail him, demanding $200,000 in exchange for her silence on alleged sexual relations between them.

Katsav also submitted a tape recording of the alleged extortion attempt. But then the women filed her own complaint, accusing the president of having coerced her into a sexual relationship through intimidation, while exploiting his position as her employer. Her complaint prompted several other women to come forward and submit similar complaints.

Katsav resigned in June last year, weeks before his term was due to expire, under the terms of the plea bargain. Katsav was succeeded by President Shimon Peres, whom he had defeated in the 2000 election for the presidency.

As part of the plea bargain, Katsav also confessed to sexual harassment, forcible indecent assault and harassing a witness. In return he was to receive a suspended sentence, and the rape charges were struck from the indictment.

The Supreme Court, deliberating a petition by women's rights groups to throw out the deal, upheld the plea bargain in February, saying it saw no reason to intervene in Mazuz's decision to approve the arrangement.

Katsav, a former Likud MK, has accused the media of mounting a politically motivated witch-hunt against him.

"Check newspaper archives and television footage over the past two years and see what you did to this man," his lawyer Zion Amir told reporters.

"Protesters were chanting outside, 'We want a trial, We want a trial' - so there will be a trial," said Avigdor Feldman, another of the ex-president's lawyers.