Olmert vows to prove his innocence

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on Friday made his first court appearance on charges of graft, vowing he would prove his innocence.

As the first Israeli premier to face criminal charges in court, Olmert acknowledged at the arraignment hearing in Jerusalem that he understood the charges against him. He is not scheduled to enter a plea until later this year.

Olmert resigned under pressure last September but has insisted on his innocence and told journalists on Friday he was confident the trial would vindicate him.

“I am innocent, and I am certain the court will clear me of any suspicions,” he said. “It is not an easy day for me; for the past three years I have been the target of an almost inhuman defamation campaign.”

The court decided it will start hearing testimony on February 22 and will hold three sessions a week.

Olmert, who turns 64 on Wednesday, was charged in August with three counts of graft.

The 61-page indictment includes allegations of “fraud, breach of trust, registering false corporate documents and concealing fraudulent earnings”.

All the charges concern actions Olmert allegedly took before he became prime minister in May 2006, first as mayor of Jerusalem and later as trade and industry minister.

He remained in office as caretaker until late March when hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, elected in February, was sworn in.

Olmert is accused of unlawfully accepting gifts of cash-stuffed envelopes from Jewish-American businessman Morris Talansky and of multiple-billing foreign trips.

He has also been charged with cronyism in relation to an investment centre he oversaw when he was minister of trade and industry between 2003 and 2006.

Attorney General Menahem Mazuz dropped three other corruption investigations against Olmert, whom Time magazine named Israel’s most able politician when he became prime minister.

In his final months in office, Olmert was subjected to repeated police interrogations, which prompted a wave of calls for him to step down.

Nevertheless, during that time he oversaw Israel’s 22-day onslaught on the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip that left 1 400 Palestinians dead and wreaked widespread destruction in the impoverished enclave.

Israel has been dogged by scandals involving public officials in recent years, with three former ministers handed prison sentences and both of the country’s most recent former presidents resigning in disgrace, but Olmert is the first ex-premier to face criminal charges.

In August, police recommended that current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman be indicted for bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Former president Moshe Katsav is on trial on several counts of rape, sexual harassment and indecent acts.

And on September 1, former cabinet ministers Avraham Hirshon and Shlomo Benizri went to jail, the former for embezzling $1-million and the latter for bribery and fraud.—AFP

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