Katsav may be charged with rape, Israeli says

President's fate hinges on hearing

January 24, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel's attorney general said yesterday that prosecutors have enough evidence to charge President Moshe Katsav with raping or sexually harassing female subordinates while serving in his current post and earlier as tourism minister.

But Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said a decision on whether to issue a first-ever criminal indictment against an Israeli president would depend on the outcome of a hearing during which Katsav has the right to rebut the allegations. Mazuz said the hearing would be scheduled in coming days.

The 61-year-old Katsav, whose post is largely ceremonial, has repeatedly denied allegations that he forced female staff members to have sex with him, saying that the charges were part of a slander campaign.

Katsav made no public statements yesterday, but his lawyers said they are eager to tell his side. The attorneys also said the charges were unreliable because they emerged years after the alleged offenses and were lodged by employees seeking revenge for dismissals.

"It may be too soon to judge what's going to happen," said Katsav's attorney, Zion Amir. "This is indeed a difficult day, and this struggle looks like it will be long. We all hope that the truth comes out. The president is convinced of his innocence."

The latest development, after months of investigation, comes amid a spate of misconduct allegations against Israeli political figures.

Although Katsav's fate has no practical bearing on the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the prospect of an indictment against the president seemed likely to add to the disdain with which many Israelis view their leaders.

Olmert, already laboring under low approval ratings since the war in Lebanon last summer, faces a police investigation of his role in the sale of a major bank two years ago. Meanwhile, a verdict is expected next week in a case against former Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who is charged with forcibly kissing a female soldier last summer while the two were alone in a government office.

Mazuz's announcement prompted calls for Katsav's resignation from across the Israeli political spectrum. Leftist lawmakers vowed to begin proceedings to force the president to step down.

Katsav, who is immune from prosecution while in office, could suspend himself temporarily while prosecutors consider whether to charge him. The president is to announce his plans at a news conference this afternoon, according to his office. His term ends in July.

The scandal broke last summer when Katsav complained to Mazuz that a former secretary in the president's office was trying to extort money from him. The woman, known in public only by her first initial "A," then filed a complaint accusing Katsav of forcing her to have sex or be fired.

As the police investigation proceeded, more women lodged charges against the president.

Mazuz said the allegations, which include a range of sexual offenses, involve four women - three former members of the presidential staff and one who worked for Katsav when he was tourism minister in the late 1990s. The most serious allegation, rape, concerns the Tourism Ministry worker.

In Israel, rape is defined as sexual penetration without a woman's free consent, but does not necessarily involve force.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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