Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Katsav backs out of sex crime plea bargain, will go to trial

Lawyers for former president Moshe Katsav announced Tuesday that he is backing out of a plea bargain reached with prosectors over sex crime charges, and will instead face trial.

Katsav said he wants to clear his name. The trial will be the first for an Israeli head of state past or present.

The disgraced former president, flanked by bodyguards and his wife, was in attendance at Jerusalem Magistrate's Court as his attorney, Avigdor Feldman, asked the court to overturn the plea bargain.

"Katsav told me that he couldn't admit to crimes he didn't commit," Feldman said afterward. "The evidence will show that Katsav is innocent."

The accusations against Katsav emerged in the summer of 2006 when the then-president reported to the police that a former employee identified only as "A" allegedly tried to blackmail him, demanding $200,000 in exchange for her silence on alleged sexual relations between him and her.

He had submitted a tape recording of the suspected extortion attempt. But "A" subsequently filed her own complaint, accusing Katsav of having coerced her into a sexual relationship through intimidation and while exploiting his superior position as her employer.

Her complaint prompted as many as nine other women to come forward and submit similar complaints.

Katsav, a married father of five and grandfather, vehemently denied the charges, and insisted he also engaged in no consensual sexual relationships with any of the women.

He resigned in June last year, weeks before his term was due to expire. Under the terms of a plea bargain, he resigned, confessed to sexual harassment, forcible indecent assault and harassing a witness.

In return he was to receive a suspended sentence, and rape charges were struck from the indictment. Prosecutors said Tuesday that they will prepare a fresh indictment against Katsav in the coming days.

"There are many factors that brought him to this decision," said his attorney Zion Amir after the decision was announced.

Outside the court, about 80 protesters from anti-rape and women's groups waved placards decrying sexual violence. "We are all 'A'," read one sign.

The protestors responded with elation to the news, saying that they would at last have their day in court. Amir told them: "You wanted to cancel the plea bargain, you got it."

The Supreme Court, deliberating a petition by women's rights groups to throw out the deal, upheld the plea bargain in February, saying it saw no reason to intervene in a decision by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz to approve the arrangement.

Katsav, a former Likud legislator, has accused the Israeli media of mounting a politically motivated witch-hunt against him.

"Check newspaper archives and television footage over the past two years and see what you did to this man," Amir told reporters Tuesday.

Katsav was succeeded by President Shimon Peres, whom he defeated in the 2000 election for the presidency.

"Protesters were chanting outside, 'We want a trial, We want a trial' - so there will be a trial," said Feldman.

By Ofra Eidelmann, Haaretz Service and Agencies