I am innocent of any crime, says Olmert

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Ehud Olmert became the first present or former Israeli prime minister ever to go on trial, insisting in a Jerusalem courtroom yesterday that he is innocent of corruption allegations that drove him from office.

Outside court, Mr Olmert told reporters he had been subjected to an "ordeal of slanders and investigations". He added: "I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime." Israelis have become used to seeing public servants in court. Mr Olmert's former finance minister was sentenced in June to five years for embezzlement, and another cabinet member was sentenced to four years for taking bribes. Israel's former ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, is being tried on rape and sexual harassment charges.

Moshe Negbi, a prominent Israeli legal analyst, said that if Israel cannot take pride in its politicians, it can be proud of its judiciary. "I think the test of a country governed by the rule of law is not if there is or isn't corruption, but if it has the capacity to fight that corruption," he said."If police and prosecutors in Israel aren't afraid to investigate a prime minister, that's a badge of honour."

Mr Olmert, 63, left politics when his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, became Prime Minister last March, and has largely been out of the public eye since.

The charges facing him include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad. The formal charges include fraud and breach of trust. Israel's Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Mr Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.

The alleged incidents date from his time as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a cabinet minister, but emerged after he was elected prime minister in 2006. Mr Olmert eventually stepped down because of the allegations, triggering elections that led to the formation of the Netanyahu government now in power.

The testimony of the American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, who said he had given Mr Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills, helped galvanise public opinion.

Mr Olmert did not testify at yesterday's brief hearing. The trial is expected to take months and was adjourned until February.