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Supreme Court: Katsav to remain free pending appeal
By RON FRIEDMAN
18/05/2011
'Katzav not a flight risk, danger to public,' court says; women’s groups and analysts say court decision undermines equality before the law.
 
Former president Moshe Katsav will remain free until his appeal process is completed.

Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger ruled on Wednesday that Katsav, who was convicted of rape and sexual harassment, and sentenced to seven years in prison by the Tel Aviv District Court, is not a flight risk nor does he present a danger to the public.

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Danziger added that Katsav’s chances of a successful appeal were good enough to warrant him remaining free for the time being. “It is impossible to say that Katsav’s chances on appeal are without a basis,” the justice wrote in his ruling.

In his decision, Danziger stressed the fact that Katsav being a former president did not affect his ruling and that all are equal before the law. The justice also emphasized that his decision did not reflect on the chances for success of the forthcoming appeal and that his assessment was not binding on the court’s future decisions.

In a 25-page ruling, Danziger explained his decision to let Katsav remain free, citing extensively from Supreme Court decisions in similar cases.

“This court’s rulings teach us that even in cases where the appellant was handed a long sentence, between four and 10 years, for severe sexual offenses, the court agreed to stay the execution of the sentence until the appeal is complete,” he wrote.

Danziger outlined the criteria a judge must consider when deciding whether someone convicted of a serious crime is allowed to remain free pending an appeal. These include: level of danger to the public, the length of the sentence, the chances of a successful appeal, the appellant’s criminal record, the appellant’s personal circumstances, and whether the appeal concerns the sentence alone or also the conviction.

The ruling indicated that in light of some of the decisions of the lower court, which were subject to differing interpretations, there is a chance that the rape conviction will be dropped altogether.

Danziger highlighted the district court’s decision not to accept the defense team’s secondary argument that Katsav had at most taken advantage of his position and sexually harassed “Aleph from the Tourism Ministry,” but had not used force to rape her, as well as the court’s blanket rejection of Katsav’s alibis, as possible grounds for a successful appeal.

Regarding the remaining three charges – sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice – the justice wrote, “The district court convicted the appellant on these charges based on the reliability of findings, after hearing directly from the complainants, witnesses and the appellant, the complainants’ accusations being independently substantiated. Without setting anything in stone, I don’t believe the appellant possesses an established defense for these charges.”

Danziger said, however, that if Katsav was convicted on the remaining three charges alone, or if his rape conviction was overturned on appeal, there was good chance he would receive no prison time.

Danziger stressed that he accepted the prosecution’s argument that the fact that Katsav had served as the eighth president of the state should not be given weight in a court ruling, but added that it was the right of every citizen to have the execution of his sentence stayed pending appeal.

“The appellant’s case should be like that of any other citizen in which the appeal court examines the possibility of staying execution, and the considerations should be the same. The appellant is not entitled at this stage, after being convicted and sentenced, to enjoy special privileges compared to any other citizen who was tried, found guilty, convicted and sentenced; it would be improper, however, to deny him his rights because of the high ranking post he filled at the time,” the justice said.

Danziger released Katsav, ordering him to deposit NIS 300,000 bail, NIS 100,000 of his own and the remainder from two guarantors. Katsav was ordered not to leave the country and told that his passport would remain in the court’s custody.

The ruling was received with dismay by women’s rights groups. The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel said the court’s decision to go easy on a convicted sex offender and postpone his sentence sent a harsh message to the public.

“The fact that Moshe Katsav was president should not ease his punishment, on the contrary; because he is a former president the court should have been more severe with him and not postpone the punishment he was handed down,” the group said in a statement.

“The court’s ruling today damaged the sense of equality before the law and enabled a former president, who was determined to be a sex offender, to carry on with his life while the taxpayers continue to sponsor him,” said Ronit Ehrenfreund- Cohen, the director of the Women’s Status Promotion Department at the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO). “This ruling sends a harsh message to women victims that even after a person is convicted of serious sex crimes, he can still postpone the sentence and walk around free for an unknown, though apparently long, time.”

Moshe Negbi, legal correspondent and analyst for Israel Radio, said Danziger’s decision undermined the principle of equality before the law.

Neither Katsav nor any of his family members agreed to comment on the ruling, but his lawyers said he received the news with mixed feelings.

“The stay gives him reason for optimism, but that is mixed with great sorrow over the fervor of those who support the prosecution,” attorney Zion Amir said.

Amir said he welcomed the justice’s ruling on the stay of execution, and that it strengthened the defense team’s belief that the convictions could be reversed. He said that throughout the entire trial the fact that Katsav had been president worked against them and not in their favor.

Though a date has yet to be set for the start of the appeal process, Danziger indicated it would be held soon.
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