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Israel may indict prez on rape charge

Israel may indict prez on rape charge

Moshe Katsav allegedly forced himself on female employees; Attorney General wants him put on trial.

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Jerusalem: Israeli President Moshe Katsav on Tuesday faced indictment on charges of rape and abuse of power in the most serious accusation against a top Israeli official in the country's history.

The allegation that Katsav used his position as Israel's ceremonial head of state—a job supposed to serve as the nation's moral compass—to force himself on his female employees has left the nation reeling.

''It is a sad day for the state of Israel,'' said lawmaker Benny Elon, who called on Katsav to resign to spare the nation further trauma. But Katsav gave no indication that he was preparing to step down, despite a wave of demands that he quit.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz's announcement that he intended to indict Katsav on a raft of charges was only the latest corruption scandal roiling the government, with accusations reaching as high as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Katsav has insisted he was innocent, and his lawyers said they hoped to persuade Mazuz to change his mind before he formally indicts Katsav, a step that would make Katsav Israel's first sitting president to be charged with a crime. But many Israelis say the enormity of the scandal has already badly tainted the office of the presidency.

''He should be the symbol of Israel, the uniting person and an ideal model for all the politicians ... so this is a bad sign for Israeli politics,'' said Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The presidency was once filled by Zionist legends and revered statesman. Albert Einstein declined an invitation to serve as the nation's first president, with the job eventually going to the scientist Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader who was instrumental in creation of the Jewish state. The presidency has also gone to a biophysicist, a historian and other men of letters.

But the office, whose main responsibilities include receiving foreign diplomats and representing Israel at formal ceremonies, has dropped in esteem in recent years.

Katsav's predecessor, the outspoken war hero turned peacemaker Ezer Weizman, resigned in 2000 after the attorney general ruled he had improperly accepted more than $300,000 in gifts from a French millionaire. Weizman was never indicted.

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Katsav had a far less lofty resume than his predecessors. He had been a low-level Cabinet minister and a Likud Party stalwart when the parliament chose him to be president in 2000 in a shocking upset over Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, after a revered rabbi said a ''vision'' showed him that Katsav was favored by the heavens, swinging votes among believers.

But Katsav's relatively quiet presidency was rocked last summer when one of his female employees accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. A flood of other women quickly came forward with similar accusations, painting the picture of a politician who had abused his power throughout his career.

In the face of the growing scandal, Katsav disappeared from public life, hunkering down in the president's compound in Jerusalem. He even briefly removed himself from office in September instead of presiding over the inauguration of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Mazuz said he had collected enough evidence to indict Katsav on charges of rape, harassment, abusing his power for sex, obstructing justice and illegally accepting gifts, stemming from his time as president and Cabinet minister.

Legal authorities said the charges could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in jail, though in most cases the defendant, if found guilty, would receive a five-to-10-year sentence. A final decision on the indictment would only be made after Katsav is given the opportunity to present his case.

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