Israel court backs former president's plea bargain

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

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

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 that 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 plea bargain after a pre-trial hearing last year in which he was persuaded that much of the evidence would not stand up in court.

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

Justice Edmond Levy and Justice Beinisch, who argued that the plea bargain was against the public interest, also wanted Mr Mazuz to consider taking Mr Katsav to trial on a charge involving an employee at the former president's official residence. 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 took part in a protest demonstration in the 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: "This is a sad day."

But one of Mr Katsav's lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, said his client had been presented as a "serial sexual offender". He added: "Someone owes the president a deep apology."