Israeli president pleads guilty to sex offences

Israeli President Moshe Katsav pleaded guilty on Thursday to committing sexual crimes against women employees in a plea bargain that will keep him out of jail, Israel’s Attorney General said.

Under the deal, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz retreated from his stated intention to charge Katsav with rape but said the president, whose term expires next month, would resign and that ”shame will accompany him forever”.

”From Israel’s first citizen, he turns into a criminal convicted of sexual offences,” Mazuz told a news conference, insisting he had not given a special break to a public figure.

An attorney for one of the victims expressed outrage at the plea bargain and a women’s rights’ advocate said it would discourage other women from complaining about sexual crimes.

The unprecedented case against an Israeli head of state has stirred powerful emotions in a country where women’s groups have long complained that authorities shrug off sexual harassment in workplaces.

As part of the arrangement, which Mazuz said Katsav had signed, the president pleaded guilty to charges that he committed a string of indecent sexual acts against one woman who worked for him and sexual harassment of another female employee.

Mazuz said Katsav, who could have faced a maximum seven years in jail for the offences, would receive a suspended sentence and pay compensation to the women. Katsav had denied any wrongdoing.

Zahava Gal-On, a left-wing legislator and women’s rights advocate, accused Mazuz of moral cowardice.

”Victims of sex crimes will believe they do not have any shield,” Gal-On told reporters.

Kinneret Barashi, an attorney for one of the women, cried foul, saying her client ”feels she is a victim for the second time”.

Israeli news reports said Katsav would hand in his resignation later in the day and it would then go into effect within 48 hours.

Evidence

The Justice Ministry said in January it planned to accuse Katsav of raping an ex-aide and sexually assaulting three other women who worked for him.

But Mazuz said prosecutors concluded that pressing ahead with the original charges would have led to ”not inconsequential problems of proof and evidence” during trial.

One of Katsav’s lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, said the plea bargain ”was not a victory because he was convicted”.

Katsav has been on leave of absence from his largely ceremonial post since plans to indict him were announced in January.

Born in Iran in 1945, Katsav immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951. At age 24 he became the country’s youngest mayor and went on to serve in the legislature and hold a number of Cabinet posts as a member of the right-wing Likud party.

Parliament elected him president in 2000 in an upset victory over then Labour Party member Shimon Peres.

Peres, now with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, won election earlier this month as Katsav’s successor.

The Katsav scandal has not had a direct impact on Olmert — who has himself been hurt politically by a string of investigations into suspected corruption, which he has denied. — Reuters

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