TEL AVIV — Israeli former president Moshe Katsav was convicted of two counts of rape on Thursday, capping a four-year scandal that shocked the Jewish state and leaves him facing at least eight years in prison.
As a Tel Aviv court handed down the verdict, which also convicted Katsav on charges of sexual harassment, indecent acts and obstruction of justice, the visibly distraught 65-year-old muttered “No, no.”
The ruling comes after a trial that lasted a year and a half and included harrowing accusations, with depictions of Katsav as a sexual predator who routinely harassed his female staff.
The former head of state was accused of twice raping a victim identified as “Aleph” during his term as tourism minister, and sexually assaulting and harassing two other women while he was president.
Katsav proclaimed his innocence throughout the investigation into the rape and harassment charges.
He initially accepted a plea agreement that would have seen him admit the lesser accusations and pay a fine in exchange for prosecutors dropping the rape charges, but later changed his mind, voiding the deal and saying he wanted to clear his name in court.
He was forced to resign as president, handing the office to former rival Shimon Peres. Katsav accused his victims of attempting to blackmail him and charged that he was the victim of “a lynching” by prosecutors and the media.
“I have been humiliated, crushed, knocked down, and I suffer,” he said in March 2009.
On Thursday, presiding Judge George Kara, reading the verdict before a packed courtroom, said Katsav “engaged in a campaign of vilification against the plaintiffs.”
And he told the former president his decision to void the plea deal “was a grave mistake.”
“We believe the plaintiff (Aleph), because her testimony is supported by elements of evidence, and she told the truth,” the judge said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “a sad day for the state of Israel and its citizens,” but he lauded the trial as a sign of the strength of the country’s legal system.
“The court today sent two clear messages: that everyone is equal before the law; and that a woman has full rights and control over her own body,” Netanyahu said.
Miriam Schler, director of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, said she hoped the conviction would send a message to Israeli men.
“I hope that it will also be a message to all the victims in Israel that even if they are assaulted by a man of power, in a very high position, that the legal system will defend them and protect them,” she told AFP.
The rape charges against Katsav each carry a sentence of between four and 16 years in prison, and he also faces sentencing for charges of sexual harassment, one indecent act, one indecent act with force, and obstruction of justice.
Sentencing is scheduled for January, and the court ordered Katsav to surrender his passport.
His lawyer hinted that they would appeal, saying “we have the strength to take this all the way to Jerusalem” where Israel’s Supreme Court is located, local news site Ynet reported.
But legal expert Moshe Negbi, speaking on Israeli public radio, estimated Katsav’s chances of success in an appeal as “zero.”
Thursday’s verdict was the culmination of an astonishing fall from grace for the Iran-born Katsav, who rose from impoverished origins as a child immigrant to assume the nation’s top office.
One of eight children, Katsav arrived in Israel three years after the 1948 war of independence and became the first resident of his neighbourhood to attend Israel’s Hebrew University.
For years, he embodied the working class kid made good. A member of the right-wing Likud party, he was Israel’s first conservative president, and also the first president of the Jewish state to have been born in a Muslim country.
He has been married since 1969 to Gila, who has stood by him throughout the allegations and prosecution, but who was not in court on Thursday. They have five children.
Katsav is the second sitting Israeli president to be forced from office by allegations of criminal conduct.
His predecessor, the late Ezer Weizman, was forced to resign in 2000 after revelations that he received around 450,000 dollars from a French millionaire while he was a minister and lawmaker.