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Ex-leader of Israel guilty in rape case ; Katsav victimized his subordinates

JERUSALEM - An Israeli court Thursday found former President Moshe Katsav guilty of rape, indecent assault and sexual harassment of female subordinates, the most serious conviction of a former top official in Israel's history.

The verdict by a three-judge panel in a case that had riveted the Israeli public was hailed as an affirmation of the rule of law and the rights of women, as well as a sign of changing norms in a society that for decades tended to condone sexual advances by powerful men in government and the military.

The president, whose role is largely ceremonial in Israel, is the country's head of state and is supposed to serve as a unifying national symbol. Katsav, 66, served in the post from 2000 to 2007, and the crimes of which he was convicted included several committed during that period.

"This is a sad day for the State of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He added: "Today the court delivered two clear-cut messages: that everyone is equal before the law and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body."

The judges in Tel Aviv District Court rejected Katsav's alibis, saying his testimony, in which he denied the charges, was "riddled with lies."

Katsav was convicted of twice raping a senior aide in 1998, when he was tourism minister, once in his Tel Aviv office and two months later in a hotel room in Jerusalem. He was also convicted of sexually molesting the aide on another occasion.

The judges said the events were part of a pattern of sexual harassment that ended with the firing of the aide after she resisted Katsav's advances.

Katsav was also convicted of suggestively embracing two female workers in his office on several occasions during his term as president, expressing a sexual innuendo toward one and obstructing justice by asking her about her testimony to the police.

In Israel, a rape conviction carries a minimum prison term of four years and a maximum of 16. Katsav's attorneys said they would appeal the verdict.

After his conviction, a stone-faced Katsav, who had consistently maintained that he was the victim of a media witch hunt, hurried out of the courtroom,

One of his sons, Boaz, protested his father's innocence, saying that the judges had "made a decision according to their feelings" and that the trial had not been conducted according to "the ethics of Israel."

Women's rights advocates said the verdict would encourage those who had been the targets of sexual harassment or assault at home or at the workplace to complain to the police.

"The message sent today by the court to other victims of exploitation of authority is, 'Don't be silent,' " said Ronit Amiel, one of the prosecutors in the case.

Katsav's conviction marked the formal end of a political career in which the Iranian-born politician who rose to the presidency from humble origins was held up as a role model for Sephardic Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. A member of the rightist Likud Party, he held several Cabinet posts before parliament elected him president in 2000 in a surprise upset of Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate who succeeded Katsav as president.

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