Analysis: Moshe Katsav to be sentenced

Any decision to imprison former president will carry enormous weight – not just for former president but for entire legal system and the country.

Katsav walking from court 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Katsav walking from court 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
After months of speculation, the questions over former president Moshe Katsav’s punishment will be answered Tuesday morning when Tel Aviv District Court judges George Karra, Judith Shevach and Miriam Sokolov lay down the sentence concluding his rape trial.
Shortly after 9 a.m., when the hearing begins, the ears of the nation will be glued to the voice of the judges as they read out their decision and determine the fate of the state’s former No. 1 citizen.
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Their decision – which will carry historic significance, not just for Katsav but for the entire legal system and the country as a whole – will bring to an end a two-year trial and a saga that has both fascinated and repelled the Israeli public for more than five years.
Along the way the story has taken many twists and turns.
They started with claims by Katsav that he was being blackmailed by an employee, and continued through a long investigation into suspicions that he had committed sexual offenses, revelations that a string of women had claimed he raped them, a plea bargain that would have acquitted him from all major charges but which he quickly canceled, two harsh press conferences at which he hurled blanket accusations at the press, and finally a long, seemingly endless trial that culminated in a decisive conviction in December.
Since that day, on which the former president was convicted of two counts of rape, sexual harassment, committing an indecent act while using force, witness harassment and obstruction of justice, the question on everyone’s mind has been whether he will serve time in prison and, if so, for how long. A February 22 pre-sentence hearing, in which prosecutors and Katsav’s lawyers presented arguments, failed to reveal much information because the state did not request a specific number of years in prison.
Though many believe a prison term is inevitable, the judges can conceivably let Katsav off with probation and community service. But they can also put him behind bars for more than a decade.
When determining the sentence, the judges will have taken into account a wide range of factors, some mitigating and some aggravating.
Above all, they will be aware of the huge symbolic significance of their decision and the ramifications it will have on the world’s perception of Israel, and on the perception of the justice system by rank and file Israelis.
On the mitigating side, they surely will have taken into account the public trial Katsav endured in the media.
Both the former president and his lawyers have said that what he went through in the years since the affair came to light was punishment enough for a lifetime.
During the pre-sentencing hearing, his lawyers referred to him as “a broken vessel” and “a zombie.”
Another factor his lawyers hope will lighten the sentence is Katsav’s long history of working for the public good, but this may be a double- edged sword because it emphasizes the extent of his failings.
An additional mitigating factor may be his age and well-being. Katsav is 65 years old and the trial has drained him, and the judges are likely to be more lenient if they think hard time will have a direct impact on his health.
Beyond this, the judges will have taken into account his lack of prior offenses and the amount of time that has passed since the offenses took place.
Perhaps chief on the list of aggravating factors is the fact that to this day, Katsav has failed to admit to any wrongdoing and has refused to take responsibility for his actions.
Throughout the trial, he maintained his innocence and continued to accuse his victims of fabricating stories.
Katsav’s antagonistic behavior throughout the trial even warranted comment in the verdict, where the judges characterized him as a liar and a bully.
“The defendant’s testimony was full of lies, big and small, and was characterized throughout by manipulations and hidden information,” they wrote.
Other factors that the judges have considered are the repetitive nature of the crimes and Katsav’s abuse of power when he committed them. Two of the rape charges were from his time as a cabinet minister, and the sexual harassment charge was from his term as president. Just as his public service can be measured to his credit, his exploitation of power and authority can be added to his faults.
The fact that Katsav served as the formal head of state carries with it enormous symbolic significance. The eyes of the world will be watching to see if the Israeli justice system sends a former president to jail, and the judges will surely consider the statement the sentence makes about the rule of law in Israel. However, here, too, the knife cuts both ways, as the judges do not want to be seen as being over-zealous and showcasing their independence.
Today in Israel, the minimum sentence for rape is four years, which is a quarter of the maximum sentence. At the time of Katsav’s offenses, there was no minimum, meaning it does not bind the judges in their decision.
Nevertheless, some suggest it as an appropriate benchmark.
In a news interview on Channel 2, Haifa University law professor Emanuel Gross estimated that the court would adopt the legislature’s decision, determining that the punishment start at a minimum of four years.
“Any sentence below four years will appear to be unjust,” Gross said.
Even if sentenced to a prison term, Katsav is not expected to go directly to jail, as the state announced it would give him several weeks in which to prepare himself.