Ultra-Orthodox former minister is jailed for fraud

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The Independent Online

The gates of Ramle prison closed yesterday on the former interior minister Aryeh Deri 10 years after the fraud squad began investigating his financial shenanigans. The man who transformed the ultra-Orthodox Shas from a movement of Sephardi cultural renewal into Israel's third-biggest political party began serving three years for bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust.

The gates of Ramle prison closed yesterday on the former interior minister Aryeh Deri 10 years after the fraud squad began investigating his financial shenanigans. The man who transformed the ultra-Orthodox Shas from a movement of Sephardi cultural renewal into Israel's third-biggest political party began serving three years for bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust.

The 41-year-old rabbi, once so influential that he was known as "the director general of the state," did it his way. He reported to the prison governor two and a half hours late. Before setting out, he took one of his nine children to her first day at school. Then he drove the 23 miles from Jerusalem, accompanied by Shas' founding guru, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in a funereal procession that blocked the main road to Tel Aviv.

In front of the bare concrete walls, he bade an emotional farewell to more than 10,000 supporters, who waved banners warning, "We won't forgive, we won't forget", and scuffled with police and reporters. Deri said he was entering the prison with a "joyful heart".

The crowd fell short of the 25,000 organisers predicted but thousands held pictures outside the jail. Some hugged and kissed Deri, competing to touch him as he made his way on to a stage to address his supporters before starting his sentence. Instead of railing against his bête noire, the "Ashkenazi élite," he urged Shas to continue bringing young Jews back to the faith.

Rabbi Yosef, too, stressed the movement's educational mission, rather than consecrating Deri as a martyr of secular "injustice". Shas will exploit the Deri case in the next elections, as it did in the last. Rabbi Yosef does not want it to be branded a party of criminals. He still aspires to rejoin a ruling coalition, under the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, or his successor.

By accident or design, Mr Barak's Cabinet voted unanimously yesterday to abolish the Religious Affairs Ministry, a font of patronage for Shas and other religious parties for half a century. Although the change will not come into effect immediately, it represents a first stride towards the Prime Minister's promised "secular revolution".

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