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Former Israel leader convicted of rape

Katsav also found guilty of harassing two women

JERUSALEM – Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted Thursday of raping an aide and sexually harassing two other women, a verdict hailed as evidence of the nation’s independent judiciary and a reminder that no one is above the law.

The case, one of the most serious ever brought against a high-ranking government official here, drove Katsav from office in 2007. Although the spectacle of a president being brought up on rape charges became a source of national embarrassment, many found solace in the judges’ guilty verdict.

“It attests to the strength of Israel’s democracy,” prosecutor Ronit Amiel said after the court’s ruling. “This day teaches us that world leaders and also presidents will be brought to court when needed, and that is a symbol of honor for the state of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a sad day for Israel” but praised the court’s message “that all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”

After the Tel Aviv court announced its decision, cheers erupted from women’s rights organizations picketing outside.

The former president, 65, who has denied the charges, left without commenting.

Katsav’s case was the most high-profile of a string of investigations in recent years targeting Israeli officials, most of them involving corruption allegations. The list includes every prime minister of the last 14 years, one other former president, two previous Jerusalem mayors and numerous Cabinet ministers.

Few actual indictments and still fewer long prison sentences have resulted from the investigations; many cases have been dropped.

Katsav was convicted of two counts of rape, as well as sexual harassment, a forced indecent act and disruption of trial.

Judges dismissed his version of events as “unserious” and “riddled with lies.”

The scandal first broke in July 2006 when the president – in an apparent attempt to defuse the matter – complained to the attorney general that he was being blackmailed over a sensitive matter.

Eventually, government prosecutors focused their investigation on Katsav, particularly after additional women came forward with complaints of sexual assault and misconduct. The cases date to the period when Katsav served as tourism minister and continued into his tenure as president.

At one point in the prosecution, Katsav agreed to a plea bargain on lesser charges, but the former president backed out of the deal, saying he wanted to prove his innocence in court.

Sentencing will be made at a later date. Rape usually carries a minimum sentence of four years and maximum of 16 years. Analysts noted that the rape in the president’s case took place before Israel adopted a mandatory four-year sentence.

The other charges carry prison terms from two to 10 years.