Former President of Israel Moshe Katsav was convicted Thursday on two counts of rape and other counts of sexual harassment and indecent acts by force against three women who worked for him while he was in government.
The conviction, which caps a 19-month-long trial, concludes the first criminal trial of a former Israeli president in Israel’s history.
The lengthy decision rendered by the three judge panel found that the testimony of “Aleph,” who worked for Katsav in the Ministry of Tourism and accused him of two counts of rape, was supported by new evidence that came to light during trial. The judges also rejected Katsav’s claim that he was indicted by the media, and added that he brought the media attention on himself — in particular with his three and a half hour televised rant in March 2009 following which several of his own advisers resigned.
“Katsav’s testimony was scattered with lies, big and small,” the decision reads, “and demonstrated his many attempts to manipulate and hide evidence…. He humiliated his victims and used his authority to have his way with them sexually.”
Katsav, 65, was convicted on two counts of rape, indecent acts by force, and sexual harassment against “Aleph” of the Ministry of Tourism, as well as counts of sexual harassment against “Heh” of the President’s Office, and indecent acts and sexual harassment against “Lamed,” who was then an 18-year old National Service volunteer in the President’s Office. He was also convicted of obstruction of justice in Lamed’s investigation, but was cleared on charges of witness tampering. The sentence for rape is up to 16 years in prison.
“This is not a happy day, or an easy day, for the State of Israel,” said Prosecutor Ronit Amiel, “but it is a day of honor for Israel’s system of democracy. It shows that in Israel, even princes and presidents who need to be brought to justice will be.”
Rape trials tend to have a direct influence on other victims’ willingness to come forward, according to Inbar Cohen of Israel’s Association of Rape Crisis. Cohen said the number of calls received at rape crisis centers and hotlines Centers in Israel — which averages 40,000 a year — spikes after rape convictions. “When victims watch an event like this, it gives them the courage to speak out, and an ability to believe in the system,” she said.
The case all began in 2006 with an investigation into Katsav’s complaint about being blackmailed by one of his accusers. The investigation turned on its head when police began investigating Katsav instead for acts of sexual violence. Although the police believed the women, Attorney General at the time Meni Mazuz expressed doubts, and he was later criticized for the way he handled the women’s testimony. Some critics said he lacked an understanding the dynamics of testimony in cases of trauma, in which victims can have difficulty retaining a precise timeline and sometimes have blanks in their narrative due to repressed memories.
The following year Mazuz announced that he arrived at a plea bargain agreement with Katsav’s attorneys, for which Katsav would plead guilty but have a suspended sentence and avoid jail time. Mazuz had told the public that testimony of the primary complainant, a President’s Office employee also called “Aleph,” was unreliable. The plea deal was widely blasted by prominent female politicians and Israeli women’s groups. In 2008, Katsav, who resigned as president the previous year, surprised the judges, the Attorney General and some of his own counselors, by announcing that he rejected the plea bargain and will take his chances with a trial. Mazuz was forced to drop “Aleph” of the President’s Office from the indictment after having publicly questioned her testimony. She responded with a widely watched press conference in which she described the intimate details of the alleged rape.
Following Thursday’s conviction Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni told reporters, “A day when a public official is convicted of rape is not a simple day for the State of Israel. But there is an important message here for public officials, and a message in support of victims of sexual violence.”
MK Orit Zuaretz, a vocal advocate for victims of violence, added, “This is a clear message to victims: Go and complain! And it is also a clear message to us, elected officials, that whoever knows and stays quiet is an accomplice to the crime.”
But Katsav’s son Boaz said he supported his father and, during a press conference, following the verdict, said, “We will continue to struggle and fight, with our heads held high and continue to be proud of our father, and let the entire nation know that our father, the eighth president of Israel, is innocent.”
Katsav’s legal team said they would recommend appeal.