Thousands of supporters escort former Israeli cabinet minister to jail

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The Independent Online

A former cabinet minister and powerbroker was welcomed by thousands of cheering supporters Sunday as he arrived at a jail to begin a three-year sentence for taking bribes.

A former cabinet minister and powerbroker was welcomed by thousands of cheering supporters Sunday as he arrived at a jail to begin a three-year sentence for taking bribes.

Traffic was jammed on a main highway as Arieh Deri's supporters escorted him from his home in Jerusalem to the prison.

The charismatic Deri, 41, a former leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, served as interior minister and was one of the most powerful men in Israeli politics. He is the first former cabinet minister to be jailed in Israel. His supporters say he is innocent and that he was convicted because he is a Sephardic (non-European) Jew.

They view the country's establishment as being almost exclusively Ashkenazi (European Jewish), although this is no longer true. Many senior figures, including the president, the armed forces chief of staff, the foreign minister and the judge who convicted Deri are Sephardic. Deri was born in Morocco.

He was convicted in April 1999 after one of the longest trials in Israeli history. The Jerusalem District Court said he took bribes throughout the five years in which he served as director general of the interior ministry and later interior minister. The bribes totalled dlrs. 155,000, the court said.

In July the Supreme Court rejected Deri's appeal but reduced his sentence from four years to three.

The motorcade was taking Deri to a complex of prisons at Ramle in central Israel. Shas supporters, mostly in the black coats and black hats worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews, held a rally in the visitor's car park outside one of the jails. They put up plackards saying "Set Deri Free" and "His crime - raising the prestige of Sephardic Jewry. The penalty - three years in jail, injustice and humiliation."

The crowd was furious when a parasail flew overhead with the message "Number One Thief" on the canopy. Some of the crowd threw stones at police and at reporters and camera crews.

On the journey from Jerusalem the motorcade stopped from time to time, apparently to delay Deri's journey to the jail. At each stop Deri supporters jumped out of their cars and danced and sang on the highway, watched by drivers caught in the traffic jam.

Further down the highway Deri supporters burned tyres at two points to stop the convoy. Police put out the flames and removed the tires. Four Shas supporters were detained for questioning. One police officer was punched several times in the face by a Shas supporter and a police car was damaged, police spokeswoman Sigal Toledo said.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin dismissed the charge of ethnic discrimination and said Deri received a fair trial. "This man is a criminal who took bribes and is trying to blame the entire world - his judges, his investigators, governments, ministries - for his felony and I am happy to say that very few people accept this," Beilin told Israel radio.

Shas is the third biggest party in parliament, with 17 seats. Shas was in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition but quit the government because the Shas leadership opposed the concessions which Barak was about to make to the Palestinians at the Camp David summit.

It was the departure of Shas and two smaller parties which wiped out Barak's parliamentary majority.

Although Shas voted against the peace process even when it was still in the government, Barak and his aides have never ruled out its return. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said Sunday he would certainly like to see Shas back in the government.

However it is questionable whether Shas would rejoin the Barak government while Deri is in jail. President Moshe Katsav has the power to pardon a convicted prisoner or to reduce his sentence. However the President does not normally do this unless the pardon or reduction of sentence is recommended by the Justice Ministry.

So far Deri has not asked for a pardon. His supporters say they are convinced that new evidence will come to light proving his innocence.