Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape and multiple charges of sexual misconduct by a Tel Aviv District Court today, making him the highest ranking Israeli official ever to be convicted and face jail.
The unexpectedly definitive verdict marked the conclusion of a four-year nationwide drama which pitted the word of the former president – who held a mostly ceremonial but highly symbolic position – against that of three anonymous former female employees.
The decision, handed down in a Tel Aviv district court, was immediately hailed as a major victory for women's rights in a society with a tradition of military machismo.
"It’s a historic and significant ruling," says Miriam Schler, director of the Tel Aviv rape crisis center. "It will restore faith in the legal system that women can come forward. It's an important statement to women in the work place, and to men in places of power, that they can't abuse their office."
Judges: Katsav testimony full of lies
Katsav was convicted of two counts of rape and a count of committing an indecent act by force while he was Tourism Minister in the late 1990s. He was also convicted on counts of sexual harassment and indecent acts toward two other employees while he served as president from 2000-07.
The former president, who rejected a plea bargain agreement that would have omitted the rape charges, has consistently rejected all of the accusations of sexual misconduct.
Calling his testimony "littered with lies,'' judges rejected Katsav's claims that the charges were part of a conspiracy against him among the different plaintiffs. They ruled that the testimony of the various women proved to be honest and credible.
Presidency typically held by No. 1 citizen
Rising through the ranks of the right-wing Likud party after immigrating to Israel as a child from Iran, Mr. Katsav is revered by many because he was the first Jew of Middle Eastern origin to become president.
Anat Saragusti, a women's rights activist and former television reporter, said the ruling was "radical'' because of the way that the judges adopted the plantiffs version of events despite the fact that they continued to work for Katsav and didn't file complaints immediately. She said the Israel's workplace culture is influenced by office norms in the military.
"This is a people's army and it leaks out into the general society,'' says Ms. Saragusti. "The situation in the army is that you have grown-up men with young women in their 20s doing secretarial work. They are used to having services performed by women and treat them as objects.''
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the conviction of a former president – an apolitical role filled by a figure considered the country's No. 1 citizen – was a "sad'' day for Israelis.
"The court handed down two clear and sharp messages,'' Netanyahu said, "on the equality of everyone before the law, and on the full rights of a women to her body.''