Analysis: A verdict that shames the presidency

Until the former president sees the inside of a jail cell, and which jail that will be, many questions have to be answered.

Moshe Katsav 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Moshe Katsav 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Thursday’s conviction of former president Moshe Katsav for rape, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice has been described by legal experts as a worldwide precedent in criminal justice.
When it comes to the stature of the felon and the judicial response to the crimes, they said Thursday, modern Western societies had not previously experienced a case like it.
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But historical precedent aside, the case is far from over. Sentence has to be passed. Appeals will likely be submitted. Before the eighth president of the state, allowed by the judges to return home on Thursday, sees the inside of a jail cell, many questions must yet be answered – including, of course, the question of which jail that will be.
“The conviction of a person of Katsav’s stature of such charges has dual implications,” said Prof. Emanuel Gross, an expert on criminal law from the University of Haifa.
“Firstly we have to ask ourselves how a president, Israel’s first citizen, could do such shameful things without anybody being aware of them. It’s possible that there were people who knew about it and did nothing.
“On the other hand,” he added, “this trial sheds a bright light on the strength and independence of our justice system, which can investigate and prosecute a president and courts that can get to the bottom of the truth.”
One of the lessons that can be learned from the verdict, according to Gross, is that in cases where public officials are involved, the doors should be closed to plea bargains. “Judges should be made to reach the truth. These types of cases should not be settled outside of the court.”
Katsav’s sentencing, which will take place in the next few weeks, will present a challenge unto itself for the judges. With a theoretically possible, and thoroughly improbable, maximum sentence of 49 years, if jail time is ordered for each crime consecutively, but no clear minimum, the judges will have to deliver a term that fits the crimes, being neither indulgent nor disproportionate given the extraordinary persona of the convict and his previous elevated place in the national establishment.
The law today determines a minimum period of four years in prison for rape. But since no such minimum existed at the time the offenses were committed, the judges can rule anywhere from zero to 16 years for each of Katsav’s two rape convictions.
The other convictions carry lower mandatory sentences, but it is likely the court won’t choose to hand out the maximum in those cases either.
“In my opinion the court needs to rule beyond the minimum because of the severity of the crimes and the repeated offences. I think we might be looking at a double-figure prison sentence,” said Gross.
Katsav’s lawyers on Thursday night, however, bridled at talk of a double-digit term.
Once the sentence is issued, Katsav will have the right to appeal to a higher court – a course his lawyers indicated they were recommending, though they have not finalized a course of action.
Gross doubted it would yield much to Katsav’s benefit.
“The Supreme Court does not interfere on issues of factual evidence or testimonial credibility, which is what this case revolved around. In the absence of a judicial error, which no one so far has brought up, I think the chances of an appeal are slim,” he said.
Another possibility is a presidential pardon. In theory, current President Shimon Peres could pardon the man he replaced in office, but there would have to be a substantial reason to do so. Katsav’s unwillingness to admit to the facts or express any measure of remorse would appear to make this option particularly implausible.
Expectations are that the judges will want to get sentencing out of the way quickly. It is assumed that Katsav would be given a short adjustment and preparation period between sentencing and going to jail.
Two or three months from now, however, the disgraced eighth occupant of Beit Hanassi could be living in a strikingly different abode.