Judgment day arrives for the former president

Entire country holds its breath in anticipation of the judges’ ruling on whether Moshe Katsav is guilty or innocent of rape charges; women's organizations demonstrate in front of court.

katzav pointing 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
katzav pointing 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A year and a half after the start of his trial and 12 years after allegedly committing the first of the offenses with which he was charged, former president Moshe Katsav arrived at the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday morning to hear from the judges whether they believe him to be guilty or innocent of rape and sexual harassment.
Along with him, an entire country is holding its breath in anticipation of the judges’ ruling.
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"The accused claimed that the media treated him unfairly, but he was a part of the publicity and the slander," Judge George Kara said, reading the verdict. He mentioned the press conference Katsav held in the Beit Hanassi and the former president's criticism of former attorney-general Menahem Mazuz.
Various women's organizations demonstrated in front of the court, in solidarity with the women who accused Katsav. The demonstrators held signs reading "You are not alone" and "We believe you."
Thursday’s reading of the verdict will be the first glimpse the Israeli public gets of the monumental decisions reached by the panel of judges Kara, Miriam Sokolow and Judith Shevah.
At the state’s request, Katsav’s trial was held behind closed doors to protect the privacy of the plaintiffs. The only transcripts of the proceedings to be published during the trial were of the opening speeches by the defense and prosecution, and a single day’s hearing.
The charges against the former president include two counts of rape, one count of committing an indecent act using force, one count of committing an indecent act, two counts of sexual harassment, one count of harassing a witness and one count of obstructing justice.
The indictment included alleged sexual misconduct on Katsav’s part against three women including “Aleph,” who worked for him in the Tourism Ministry, and “Heh” and “Lamed Yod,” who worked for him during his term as president.
The most serious charges against Katsav involve Aleph. According to the indictment, Katsav raped her on two occasions and also used force to commit an indecent act.
In the five months that have passed since the two sides delivered their closing statements, the judges have had a chance to examine thoroughly the evidence, arguments and testimonies heard in the courtroom. During that time, they have had to reach decisions on several key aspects.
One of them was to assess the credibility of the plaintiffs’ testimonies. While the prosecution presumably did everything to present the plaintiffs as helpless victims of the sexual advances of an important and powerful man who was also their boss, the defense lawyers, equally, did their best to paint them as willing partners in a “harmless” office romance.
Apart from the three alleged victims, the prosecution also called upon two additional women who claimed that Katsav had molested them, but whose complaints did not form part of the indictment because the statute of limitations on those alleged offenses had passed. These witnesses were called to establish a pattern by which Katsav allegedly operated.
Another consideration the judges had to rule on involved recent changes to the offense of rape in the criminal code. The code currently states that the penalty for rape is a period of between four and 16 years’ imprisonment. Since the alleged offenses took place before the code was changed, if Katsav is found guilty, the judges may sentence him to a shorter term.
There are three possible outcomes that the judges will read out in court: a complete acquittal on all charges, a complete conviction, or a partial conviction on some of the charges.
If he is found guilty on all counts, Katsav stands to face a maximum sentence of 52 years in prison; however, even in such an eventuality it is not likely that he will serve more than the maximum sentence for the most serious rape charge – 16 years.
In any event, it is unlikely that the case will end with the reading of the verdict, as both sides have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court if the verdict doesn’t satisfy them.
Katsav has claimed complete innocence since the affair first broke in summer 2006, after he filed a complaint to the police against a former female employee. He accused her of attempted extortion after she allegedly tried to blackmail him by threatening to expose him as a sexual deviant.
The woman, who later came to be known as “Aleph from Beit Hanassi,” was not, in the end, part of the indictment; but she was the one who got the investigation against the then president rolling.
In the months that followed, as the police and prosecution built up their case against Katsav, public opinion turned against him and calls for his resignation mounted. Katsav did eventually step down – but not before hurling severe accusations against the police, the prosecution and the media during a press conference at his official residence, during which he claimed they were conducting a witch-hunt against him and pledged to prove his innocence.
A key moment in the affair took place in August 2008, when Katsav reneged on a plea bargain signed with the State Attorney’s Office in order to have the chance to prove his innocence in court.
The deal, which would have seen Katsav plead guilty to two charges of sexual harassment – but not the rape charges – sent 20,000 people out into the streets of Tel Aviv in protest.
In March 2009, then attorney-general Menachem Mazuz filed the indictment against Katsav. It graphically described the former president’s alleged crimes and painted him as a sexual predator. His trial began in May last year.
“I am here today by choice; I depart today on a long, difficult, journey to battle for my innocence. Here it is no longer a mock trial, here they won’t determine my case without seeing me, without hearing me, without reading all the investigation materials… I am embarking on a long and difficult battle to clear my name, and I promise once again that I will emerge innocent,” said Katsav at the start of his trial.
On Thursday, the country will find out whether that is indeed the case.
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.