Analysis: Justice is blind, but is it also deaf?

The media and public outcry against Katsav did play a role in judges’ sentence.

Katsav after sentencing_311(r) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Katsav after sentencing_311(r)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The seven-year prison term imposed on Moshe Katsav on Tuesday caught many in the media and in the legal system by surprise. People who wagered that the judges would afford all possible leniency to the former president and convicted rapist underestimated the judges’ zeal and willingness to make an example of him.
In their decision, the judges proved that all are equal before the law. By sentencing Katsav to a sentence more or less on par with what he would have received had he been an ordinary citizen, they demonstrated that as far as politicians go, the Israeli justice system is blind.
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But the disagreement between the judges on the length of the sentence raised the question of whether or not justice was also deaf. In her minority opinion, Judge Judith Shevach said that the sound of the drums pounded on by the protesters outside the courtroom during Katsav’s verdict reading reverberated inside the courtroom. What she was alluding to was the concerted campaign to convict Katsav that accompanied him from the moment the suspicions first came to light over four-and-a-half years ago.
The media played a central role in the proceedings and, according to Judge George Karra’s ruling, also played a role in determining the length of his sentence. Karra said that had it not been for the aggressive media campaign, Katsav’s sentence would have been significantly longer.
The position that Katsav’s lawyers argued and which the judges, to various degrees, accepted, was the claim that the media had arranged a sub judice trial of Katsav, without knowing all the facts and without attempting to present a fair and balanced depiction of the events.
Katsav lawyers argued that, fed by continuous leaks from the State Attorney’s Office, the media predetermined Katsav’s guilt and prejudiced both the public and, to a certain extent the judges, against him.
They argued that the campaign was so one-sided and so severe that it constituted a breach of due process, entitling Katsav to an acquittal. They also argued that in light of what he and his family had suffered as a result of the campaign, he should be spared a prison term.
None of the judges adopted the arguments fully, but in her minority opinion, Shevach said that the media’s behavior was enough to justify a sentence of only four years.
In any case the defense’s arguments carried significant weight, as it was practically the only mitigating factor that the judges accepted and led them to significantly reduce the sentence from the maximum penalty of 16 years in prison. The media, which was so keen on punishing Katsav, turned out to be the main reason for his getting a lesser sentence.
Part of the Katsav’s punishment stems from the determination by the judges that his crimes constituted moral turpitude. This means that the former president will be stripped of nearly all the benefits he was awarded by his former office.
As a former president, minister and member of Knesset, Katsav was entitled to benefits including an office, assistants, a driver, a vehicle, reimbursements on housing expenses and free phone and newspaper subscriptions for the rest of his life. Moreover, he will be stripped of an annual government stipend worth NIS 1.8 million.
Katsav’s lawyers have already said they would appeal both the sentence and the verdict to the Supreme Court. They claim that the district court judges did not take into sufficient account the extent to which the media campaign harmed due process, and they are convinced that the Supreme Court will give more weight to the issue.
Another avenue for Katsav is to apply for a presidential pardon. Though current President Shimon Peres said that such a move was not being considered, Peres’s term ends in 2014 and his replacement may see things in a different light.
In the meantime, Katsav faces one, and possibly more, civil suits.
A woman who claims she was raped by Katsav, Aleph from Beit Hanassi, has already said that she would sue him for millions in damages and it is highly possible that the other Aleph, from the Tourism Ministry who was at the center of his conviction, will also sue him.
Throughout the entire affair Katsav has completely refused to admit that he had done anything wrong. Such an attitude, though consistent and thus expressing conviction in his innocence, limits his ability to defend himself in court. Just as it prevented him from signing a plea agreement two years ago, which would have erased the major charges, today it harms his chances for a pardon.
Unwilling to admit to wrongdoing, even in light of overwhelming evidence that was enough to convince a threejudge panel to unanimously decide to convict him, Katsav has desperately stuck to his story. But by attributing all the wrongdoing to his victims, claiming they knowingly lied about him, he has repeatedly presented himself as a man lacking in compassion, yet expecting compassion from others.
A free and independent judiciary is something that the Israeli public can be proud of. The judges who tried Katsav’s case, like all judges, work under difficult and strenuous conditions. The fact that they have the ability and courage to make difficult decisions despite the conditions is a credit to them and to the Israeli society.
On a day that a former president is sentenced to jail for rape, that is no small thing.