My Word: Justice for all...

The conviction of the former president carries more than one important message.

By
January 8, 2011 21:25
Liat Collins

liat collins 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If ever you need more proof that the “Israel is an apartheid state” theory is no more legitimate than systematic discrimination itself, look no further. It has never been so publicly refuted as in the Moshe Katsav case.

The conviction of the former head of state on charges ranging from rape to harassment gave very few reasons for pride, but one of them is the composition of the three-judge panel who tried Katsav and found him guilty: Judges George Karra, Miriam Sokolow and Judith Shevah. Since Israel does not have a jury system, the identities and role of the judges is particularly pertinent.

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I challenge you to name any other country in the region in which a member of a minority community and two women would be in a position to hand down a verdict on the president. Karra, in fact, is a minority within a minority: a Christian Arab. He wouldn’t stand a chance in most of the Muslim world. Female judges are also not the norm there in such cases, and in some countries, including “moderate” Saudi Arabia, a woman who is raped can be flogged and imprisoned for finding herself in that situation.

Accepting the claims of the witnesses in full , the three judges ruled that Katsav was guilty on all counts, except for one of the two charges of harassing a witness.

“So, do you still believe he’s innocent?” a colleague e-mailed me as the verdict was being handed down on December 30.

I have never claimed Katsav was innocent. I have written, and continue to believe, that the media acted as policeman, judge and executioner before the case even came to court. Katsav received a fair trial in one place where it counts – in the courtroom – but not in the press, where it is no less important. Too many of those condemning him were acting on hearsay and no one, other than the women and Katsav himself, knew for sure what went on behind closed doors.

I was concerned that the principle of a person being considered innocent until proven guilty was too readily thrown aside by those who should know better.

IN THE way of modern journalism, I followed the verdict simultaneously on TV, radio and via the Web. It was not pleasant.

This was not the open-mouthed stupidity of Bill (“I never had sex with that woman”) Clinton, nor what the French accept as so natural that president François Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate child were offered a place of honor at his funeral.

The international press also had a field day as the “sexy story” became ever more sordid and Katsav changed from being the country’s No. 1 representative into a serial rapist.

The sight of women’s groups beating on drums and chanting outside the court as Katsav’s defense was ripped to pieces by the judges did not seem to me a celebration of justice. It brought to mind the images of the old hags gathered around the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Gloating at his downfall does nothing to benefit the victims, either. Arguably, the media attention is one of the greatest deterrents to victims of sex crimes weighing up whether to report an incident.

A case like this might not have any winners, but it does mark a turning point. It was an unequivocal message that, in the words of the judges, “When a woman says no, she means no.”

Even if the man is in a position of power. Even if he is literally No. 1.

It was a reinforcement of the signal sent out in 2007, when the court pronounced a guilty verdict against former justice minister Haim Ramon on charges of indecent assault, and before that against former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, also for indecent behavior.

For Katsav, the conviction seemed to act as an almost physical blow. He entered the courtroom proud and erect and left looking like a dirty old man. The witnesses (known only by their initials) were obviously not the only ones able to resist his charms; the judges also didn’t accept his version of events.

Judge Karra, summing up, told Katsav he had made “a grave mistake” when he decided that instead of facing trial for lesser charges as part of a plea bargain, he would, in Katsav’s words, “fight until the truth comes out.”

The truth turned out to be more disturbing than the stories sparked by his former assistant, known as “Aleph of the President’s Residence,” whose possible blackmail attempt of Katsav marked the start of the public stage of the saga.

While women’s groups took to carrying placards proclaiming “We are all Aleph,” I still feel they had no right to speak for me. After all, Aleph did not rush to the police to complain that the president had attacked her to save her coworkers from a similar fate.

That would have been the courageous thing to do.

Instead, according to the tapes since broadcast on Channel 2, she apparently phoned the president and demanded huge sums of money to buy her silence.

I have noted before that as a journalist I can appreciate the value of leaks, but as a citizen I find it worrying that a private discussion between the head of state and its top legal adviser found its way directly to the country’s eager press. It does not bode well in the long term, regardless of the outcome.

Another signal was sent from the Tel Aviv courthouse, however: Nobody is above the law.

This, too, is a positive sign of change in the way the country is ruled – particularly at a time when the list of lawmakers turned lawbreakers includes former finance minister Avraham Hirchson, serving a jail sentence for embezzlement, and former health minister Shlomo Benizri, doing time for corruption, and when even ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert is mired in various financial scandals.

Katsav will inevitably appeal, in the legal sense, but the verdict itself is significant for the Knesset (which elected him), the presidency, the media, and even the feminist movement.

Curiously, former justice minister Yossi Beilin – from the other side of the political and social map to Katsav – suggested this week on Channel 1’s Politika show that President Shimon Peres should commute Katsav’s sentence as soon as it is handed down because “it would not be right for Israelis to see a former president in prison.” He added that Katsav’s real punishment would be having to face his wife, children and neighbors.

The trial had been traumatic for the country, Beilin said, but added: “For Israeli democracy, this was a type of test that it passed. Something happened that happens almost nowhere in the world, and we need to be proud of our system.”

Although the boost to pride was welcome, Beilin’s suggestion did not receive popular support.

Indeed, no sooner had the verdict been handed down than calls were heard for the removal of Katsav’s sculpture from its place among the bronze busts of all former incumbents at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Again, I found myself at odds with the public sentiment. You cannot – or should not – rewrite history. Nothing can change the fact that Katsav served almost a full term as head of state. Rather than remove the bust, a line should be added to the plaque giving the dates he held the post, and recording forever the reason he so dishonorably lost the position. It might serve as a humbling reminder to future presidents that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. That does the country justice.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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