Benizri enters the slammer as followers proclaim his innocence

Dozens of supporters accompanied former Shas cabinet minister Shlomo Benizri to Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle on Tuesday, shouting slogans of support and scrapping with reporters they blame for being part of an organized news media attack on their leader. Benizri pleaded with his boosters to refrain from violence and dozens of police officers were stationed outside the prison to keep matters from getting out of control. Shofars were blown, stickers with a picture of Benizri and reading "He is innocent" were passed out, and Shas chairman Eli Yishai voiced his hope that President Shimon Peres would pardon Benizri. "We do not abandon friends, Shas is with you," said Yishai just before Benizri entered Ma'asiyahu to serve a four-year sentence for bribery. He will live in the religious ward. "We hope the president will grant him a pardon," Yishai said. In a tearful farewell, Benizri said, "You all see the frustration and the pain of the public. I am trying to hold back my feelings. Someone will have to make the cry of the poor heard. These tears are not just my tears but the tears of thousands among the Jewish people who I met with in recent weeks." In the weeks leading up to his imprisonment, Benizri travelled around the country giving sermons and saying his good-byes to his many followers. Benizri, who was born in Haifa in 1961 and attended the Nesher Comprehensive High School before embracing an Orthodox lifestyle as an adult, has been intensely involved in the Tshuva movement, a grassroots social phenomenon in which tradition Sephardim adopt a more stringently Orthodox adherence to Halacha. Benizri has worked closely over the years with Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, head of the Or Haim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who was convicted of being an intermediary in a bribery offense in the case. Benizri, who maintains his innocence, has declined to say whether he thinks his conviction is an expression of discrimination against Sephardim in a society dominated political and intellectually by Ashkenazim. However, followers who accompanied Benizri to prison said that their leader was singled out because of his religiosity and his ethnic identity, according to news reports from outside the prison. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Tuesday that the jailing of Benizri and former finance minister Avraham Hirchson on the same day was "a sad day for the Knesset." Hirchson, who was sentenced to five years and five months for embezzling funds, refused to speak to reporters as he drove himself to Hermon Prison on Tuesday morning. He is said to be sharing a cell with three other inmates at the prison, which houses mostly prisoners convicted of crimes related to drugs and violence. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.