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Ex-Israeli leader jailed for rape

An Israeli court has sentenced former president Moshe Katsav to seven years in prison for raping a former employee, capping a five-year saga that turned a working-class hero into the country's highest-ranking official ever sent to jail.

The case has riveted Israel, sparking heated debate about equality before the law, women's rights and the role of the media. Vowing to appeal, Katsav shouted at the judges: "You have committed an injustice! The verdict is untrue. It is a lie. The lies have won!"

The court ordered Katsav, 65, to report to prison on May 8, giving him time to prepare an appeal before the Supreme Court that his lawyers said they will file promptly.

A stony faced Katsav had entered the courtroom accompanied by his sons and confidantes. Neither his wife, Gila, nor any of his three accusers were in court. He refused to sit in the dock until the media left and remained stoic throughout most of the reading but broke down in tears upon hearing his sentence.

Katsav had denied the charges, but the Tel Aviv court stated unequivocally that the accusers' versions of events were far more credible. Although Israel's Supreme Court has in the past overturned high-profile convictions based on reasonable doubt, most analysts predicted an uphill struggle for Katsav.

If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling, Katsav could ask his successor, President Shimon Peres, for a pardon but his chances seem slim. Peres has said the sentence "illustrates that in the state of Israel no one is above the law".

Presiding judge George Kara said: "We can't forget that the accused is not a victim but a victimiser." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "Every woman has the right to her body, the right to respect and freedom, and nobody has the right to take these from her."

The Tel Aviv District Court convicted Katsav in December of raping a former employee and sexually harassing two other women who used to work for him. He was also convicted of indecent acts and obstruction of justice. Katsav was handed a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay fines to two of his victims.

The rape took place when Katsav served as tourism minister in the late 1990s, while other crimes occurred after he became president in 2000. The ruling branded him "manipulative" and said his testimony was riddled with lies.

Katsav has claimed he was a victim of a witch-hunt driven by ethnic differences among Israeli Jews. Israel's European-descended elite, which has provided every prime minister to date, could never quite accept the ascent of a religious man who immigrated from Iran as a child, he suggested. His lawyers argued the media interest in the case meant he did not get a fair trial.

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