Katsav denies charges as trial begins

Court agrees to postpone defense team's written response for 30 days; lawyers ask to slow down trial.

katsav trial first day 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
katsav trial first day 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Moshe Katsav will reply formally in writing within 30 days to the charges in the indictment against him, but his lawyer, Zion Amir, already declared on Thursday, the opening day of the trial, that the former president would deny all of them. "We will submit our response [to the indictment] within 30 days, but let me make it clear that we unequivocally plead not guilty to the charges, and that won't change," Amir told a panel of three Tel Aviv District Court judges headed by Judge George Karra and including Judith Shevach and Miriam Sokolov. The indictment against Katsav includes two counts of rape, two charges of committing an indecent act, two charges of sexual harassment and one charge each of harassing a witness and obstructing justice. A few minutes earlier, Katsav, dressed in a dark suit and black-and-white dotted tie, spoke briefly to journalists waiting for him outside the courtroom on the sixth floor of the Tel Aviv District Court. "A year ago, I decided to waive the plea bargain, which was regarded as being easy on me. I am now embarking on a long and difficult journey to fight to clear my name. Here [in court,] they will not seal my fate without seeing and hearing me and without seeing all the evidence," he said. "For more than two years, the state prosecution has been saying that they have doubts, that they are hesitating, that there is a good chance of a complete acquittal," he went on. "The state prosecution prepared an opinion backing up my position, which it refused to reveal to the High Court of Justice. Five senior prosecutors recommended closing the file, two of them more than two years ago. I promise you once again that with God's help, I will remain innocent." Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, a group of demonstrators wearing T-shirts that read, "We are all Aleph," protested the lengthy judicial process and expressed their support for Katsav's alleged victims. The hearing was brief. The chief prosecutor in the case, Ronit Amiel, asked the court to hold the hearings behind closed doors. Later, she told reporters, "I understand the enormous media and public interest that this affair generates, but we must remember that an indictment has been filed, and now the court must do its work with all possible seriousness, responsibility and professionalism." She added that "it is also important to remember that behind this affair, as sensational as it may be, there are people - there is a defendant who is fighting to clear his name, and there are the hurt and wounded women who lodged complaints, each one of whom wants a quiet investigation of their complaint, and all of whom want their privacy." For his part, Katsav's lawyer asked the court to slow down the pace of the hearings. During a discussion of the matter in chambers the previous day, Karra informed the attorneys that the trial would begin on September 1 and that hearings would take place four times a week - Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Amir pleaded with the court to give the lawyers more time to deal with other clients and proposed hearings of two times a week and three times a week alternatively. Karra rejected the request. "I don't intend to drag this trial out," he told Amir. "I have already said we would take into consideration and grant sporadic requests [for deferments]." But it wasn't clear that Amir took Karra's decision as the last word in the matter. "Speed and efficiency are important and very desirable," he said in an interview with Israel Radio news. "[But] the desire to get to the truth is [also] very important. We have to balance between the two. If efficiency comes at the expense of doing justice, it has no value." He also hinted that he might ask for a further postponement of the trial. In asking for 30 days to submit the defense's written response to the indictment, Amir argued that he had received a large number of cartons of new evidence just two days earlier. Even the extra month might not be enough to read and study all of it. "This being caught between a rock and a hard place is very problematic," he told Israel Radio. "I will never begin a trial unless I am prepared, in accordance with the law, to provide the best and most thorough defense that I can in the context of the time allotted to me - and this is what I will do." Amir also announced that when the trial resumes next month, the defense will ask the court to order the prosecution to schedule another hearing based on the new evidence that has been gathered since the first hearing was held in May 2007. Representatives of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers took up positions outside the courtroom Thursday morning, both to protest the lengthy judicial process the victims faced and to show them moral support and sympathy. "We want to show the accusers that we believe them," Einat Rubin, spokeswoman for the association, told The Jerusalem Post. "It is not easy for victims of rape or sexual assault to speak out, especially when it is against a well-known person, and we want them to know that they are not alone." Rubin said that women's groups welcomed the start of the trial, which has dragged on for more than three years, and that they would be present every day to ensure that justice was done. Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.