TEL AVIV (AFP) – Former Israeli president Moshe Katsav was on Tuesday sentenced to seven years behind bars after being convicted on two counts of rape and other offences in a scandal which has rocked Israel.

The judges also handed him a two-year suspended sentence and ordered him to pay compensation of 100,000 shekels ($28,000, 20,000 euros) to the main victim, known only as "Aleph", as well as 25,000 shekels ($7,000, 5,000 euros) to a second victim.

"This is a victory for lies!" shouted the 65-year-old as the sentence was read out by presiding Judge George Kara, with his legal team vowing to appeal.

Katsav was convicted in December of rape, sexual harassment, indecent acts and obstruction of justice after an 18-month trial which included harrowing accusations, and portrayed him as a sexual predator who routinely harassed his female staff.

The sentence was hailed by women's campaigners as a "great achievement" but denounced by Katsav's legal team as a "day of mourning for Israel."

As the sentence was read out, one of his sons approached the dock to hug his father, who could be heard telling him: "Don't get excited, they are wrong."

He then began shouting at the judges, telling them: "You are wrong! It's a victory for lies!" and "An injustice has been done here."

The sentence was approved by two of the three judges, with the third pushing for a jail term of four and a half years for the former head of state, who repeatedly proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial.

"The crime of rape harms and desecrates a person's honour, humiliates them, represses the spirit and damages the soul. The severity of the crime of rape was further reinforced because it was carried out through the exploitation of his position of authority," Judge Kara said.

"The defendant committed the crime and like every other person, he must bear the consequences. No man is above the law," he said, according to an official transcript.

"The accused is not a victim but the one who carried out an attack."

As Katsav left the court, hundreds of photographers and cameramen fought tooth and nail to get close to the besuited former president, who now has 45 days to appeal the sentence.

"Rapist, go to prison!" screamed one woman as he was bundled into a waiting car, with scuffles breaking out between reporters and his family.

Tzion Amir, one of Katsav's lawyers, described the sentence as "day of sadness and mourning for Israeli society" and vowed to appeal.

"We will examine the ruling and we will appeal to the Supreme Court in the coming weeks," he told reporters outside the court. Should the appeal fail, Katsav will have to begin serving his sentence on May 8.

"There is no doubt that this is a very significant day for the victims of sexual violence after a four-and-a-half-year struggle," said Dorit Abramovich, who headed a campaign by 20 women's groups to charge the former president.

"This is a great achievement. A serial sexual offender and former president is going to jail for serial sexual violence," she told AFP outside the court.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was "a day of sadness and shame" for Israel but also "a day of pride" for the country's justice system.

"The court issued a sharp and unequivocal ruling on a simple principle, that of equality before the law," he said in comments broadcast on the main radio stations.

"Nobody is above the law, not even a former president," he said, noting that the ruling had implications for equality between men and women.

"Every woman has the right to her body, the right to respect and freedom, and nobody has the right to take these from her," he said.

The former head of state was accused of twice raping "Aleph" during his term as tourism minister, and sexually assaulting and harassing two other women while he was president.

He was forced to resign as president in June 2007, handing the largely-ceremonial office to former rival Shimon Peres.

During the trial, Katsav said he was the victim of a "lynching" by prosecutors and the media and accused his victims of trying to blackmail him.