Israeli President faces calls to resign over rape charges

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Moshe Katsav, the President of Israel, is to be charged with rape and other sexual offences against four women who worked for him in his present office or in his previous job as minister of tourism. He also faces allegations of fraud, breach of trust, harassing a witness and obstruction of justice.

The Attorney-General, Menachem Mazuz, notified Mr Katsav of this decision yesterday. He had, he said, concluded that there was enough prima facie evidence to indict. He decided not to proceed on complaints lodged by six other women. If convicted of rape, 61-year-old Mr Katsav, who has five children, could face a maximum of 16 years in prison.

He has protested his innocence since police began investigating him last July. His lawyer, David Liba'i, said last night that he would continue to fight to clear his name, but he hinted that the President would suspend himself pending a trial. His critics said that was no longer adequate.

The rape charge concerns a woman who worked for Mr Katsav at the tourism ministry in 1998-99. He is also accused of a series of offences against the original complainant, identified as "A", in the President's office: using his position of superiority to obtain sex, non-consensual sex, assault and sexual harassment. He is said to have assaulted and harassed two other members of his presidential staff.

The Iranian-born President, like any Israeli public figure facing criminal proceedings, has a right to a hearing by the law officers before the indictment is confirmed, but Ran Cohen, a left-wing Meretz party MP, said last night: "He must resign immediately, now that he has humiliated the institution of the presidency and the public."

Frances Raday, a law professor and women's rights campaigner, commented: "The decision to prosecute gives hope that women's dignity will be respected. But the fact that the President did not resign, and that the political system did not rise up with one voice and require him to do so, is a serious comment on the corrupt, patriarchal nature of Israeli politics."

If Mr Katsav goes, his ceremonial duties would be taken over by Dalia Itzik, the Knesset Speaker, until a new election is held. If he refuses, parliament would have to impeach him, which requires a vote of 90 of the 120 legislators. His seven-year term, and with it his immunity, is due to expire in July.

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