Former Israeli president's controversial plea bargain upheld

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The Independent Online

Israel's Supreme Court has infuriated women's rights groups by upholding a plea bargain under which disgraced former president Moshe Katsav will escape jail for a string of alleged sex offences.

After months of deliberation the court issued a majority ruling rejecting petitions to cancel the plea bargain. The bargain, struck with the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, dropped rape charges against Mr Katsav.

Two judges on the five person panel, including the Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch wanted the plea bargain overturned and for Mr Mazuz to consider afresh prosecuting the ex-President on charges involving a woman who alleged Mr Katsav, now 62, raped her while he was Tourism Minister and she was working for him.

Under the plea bargain struck in June last year, two counts of rape, two of forcible indecent assault and one of sexual intercourse while exploiting an employer-employee relationship were dropped, in return for Mr Katsav pleading guilty to two lesser offences of indecent assault and sexual harassment.

Mr Mazuz agreed to the bargain after a pre-trial hearing last year in which he was persuaded by Mr Katsav's lawyers that much of the evidence would not stand up in court.

Although even one of the majority judges Eliezer Rivlin, also criticized Mr Mazuz's handling of the case, the ruling held that there was not sufficient reason to interfere in his decision.

But both Justice Edmond Levy and Justice Beinisch, who also wanted Mr Mazuz to consider taking Mr Katsav to trial on a charge involving an employee at the former President's official residence who said he kissed and hugged her, argued the plea bargain was against the public interest.

Justice Levy said: "In a case such as the one before us, involving such a senior public figure, accused of such serious crimes, the need to seek the truth is especially strong."

Some 20,000 people - including some of Israel's most prominent women politicians - took part in a protest demonstration last summer after the plea bargain was announced. Yifat Matzner, a lawyer for a women's rights group that appealed against the plea bargain, said yesterday after the judgement was made public: "This is a sad day."

But one of Mr Katsav's lawyers Avigdor Feldman called the final charges a "tiny shrivelled up indictment" but that his client had been presented as a "serial sexual offender". He added: "Someone owes the president a deep apology."