A JERUSALEM court yesterday sentenced Aryeh Deri, one of the most powerful politicians in Israel, to four years in prison for taking bribes.
The verdict is a serious blow to his party, Shas, which has strong support among Israelis of Middle Eastern origin.
After first citing the prophets Amos and Jeremiah on corruption, Judge Yaakov Tzemach said: "Bribe-taking became a way of life for him. He presented an extreme danger to the nation and people. Too much mercy would be cruel to society." Mr Deri said he would appeal.
He was found guilty last month of taking bribes worth $155,000 (pounds 97,000) over a five-year period when he was director-general and later minister of the interior.
Distraught Shas supporters, dressed in the distinctive black hats and three-quarter length coats of the ultra-orthodox, pressed against the gates of the court yesterday as the verdict was read out. Some chanted: "Aryeh is innocent". Others said he was "framed because he was a Sephardi" - a Jew originating from the Middle East.
Not all of Mr Deri's supporters are religious. One woman wearing secular clothes standing outside the court said she backed him because of his advocacy for social reform: "He created a social revolution for people in the slums. What has happened is terrible."
It is unclear how long Deri can remain a power broker after yesterday's sentence, which included a pounds 40,000 fine. He remains leader of Shas, the party he virtually created, and which has 10 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). He will not go to jail until the Supreme Court has heard his appeal, well after the Israeli election on 17 May.
Shas is painting Deri's trial as persecution of the Sephardi community. He is unlikely to step down while he retains the support of the revered spiritual leader of Shas, Avadia Yosef, who was having an emergency operation yesterday .
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