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Evidence on Katsav sufficient for indictment

A hearing will determine whether Israel will prosecute its president on sexual harassment charges.

January 24, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel's attorney general said Tuesday that prosecutors have enough evidence to indict President Moshe Katsav on charges he raped and sexually harassed female subordinates while serving in his current post and earlier as tourism minister.

But Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz said a decision on whether to issue the first 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 mainly ceremonial, has repeatedly denied allegations that he forced female staffers to have sex with him, saying the charges were part of a slander campaign.

Katsav made no public statements Tuesday, but his lawyers said they were 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 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, following 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 a possible 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 last summer's war in Lebanon, faces a police investigation of his role in the sale of a major bank in late 2005. 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 while the two were alone in a government office last summer.

Mazuz's announcement prompted calls for Katsav's resignation from across the Israeli political spectrum. His term ends in July. Leftist lawmakers vowed to begin proceedings to force the president to step down, but he could suspend himself temporarily while prosecutors consider whether to charge him. Katsav, who is immune from prosecution while in office, is to announce his plans at a news conference this afternoon, according to his office.

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, involved four women -- three former members of the presidential staff and one woman 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.

Orit Kamir, a law professor at Hebrew University, praised authorities for pursuing a case against someone who symbolizes national pride.

"It's a very big step forward because we're no longer trying to silence and hide sexual conduct -- we're facing it," Kamir said.

Mazuz also said Katsav could be charged with fraud and breach of trust in connection with allegations that he gave as private gifts items from the official presidential residence, and with badgering a witness and attempting to obstruct justice.

A decision on whether to indict was expected weeks ago, but prosecutors were divided on whether the most serious charges would hold up in court, according to Israeli media reports.

Katsav, whose job consists of greeting foreign dignitaries and representing Israel at state ceremonies, has kept a relatively low profile since police investigators handed over their recommendations in October.

A longtime member of the conservative Likud Party, Katsav was elected president by parliament in an upset win in 2000. Until the scandal, he drew little notice from most Israelis.

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ellingwood@latimes.com

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