A former Israeli justice minister on Wednesday said ex-President Moshe Katsav should be pardoned to spare Israelis the sight of a former head of state serving jail time for rape.
Katsav's conviction last week has riveted the nation, with nearly unanimous scorn for the disgraced politician and wall-to-wall praise for the legal system that proved itself egalitarian by bringing him to justice.
But some voices are starting to emerge questioning the sweeping verdict - saying the judges essentially dismissed Katsav's denials and chose to believe the complainant's version - and asking what kind of punishment is appropriate for the country's former head of state.
Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister who once led the dovish Meretz Party, said Katsav's public humiliation was enough of a punishment and would serve as a powerful deterrent to other officials. He said it was not in the public interest to see a former symbol of the state behind bars.
"He obviously deserves a heavy punishment, but the question is whether we also deserve that punishment when the country is being portrayed all over the world as a country whose president is like this," Beilin told Israel's Army Radio.
"I think the real punishment for Moshe Katsav is not to be separated from society but rather to remain on his street, to look into the eyes of those close to him, to look into the eyes of his grandchildren and to know that everyone knows the truth."
The proposal was quickly lambasted by women's rights advocates.
"A rapist's place is in prison," said former lawmaker Zahava Gal-On.
'Court not willing to intervene'
A pardon would have to come from Katsav's successor as president, Shimon Peres, whose office has refused to discuss the scenario.
Last week, a Tel Aviv court ruled that Katsav twice raped a woman who worked for him when he served as tourism minister in the 1990s, and assaulted and harassed two other woman who worked for him when he was president, from 2000 to 2007. The scathing ruling called him "manipulative" and said his testimony was riddled with lies. He faces between four to 16 years in prison for the offenses.
Katsav attorney Zion Amir said he would announce whether he intends to appeal the verdict after sentencing, which is expected to be delivered within the next two months. Amir said Katsav and his team would not be making any other comments until sentencing takes place.
Experts seem to agree that a successful appeal is highly unlikely.
Israel's Supreme Court traditionally only overturns convictions based on the interpretation of the law. It usually does not challenge the factual findings of lower courts that heard testimonies and questioned witnesses.
Emanuel Gross, a criminal law professor at Haifa University, said the court "is not willing to intervene in any way whenever it gets to fact finding."
The ruling, reached after 18 months of closed door hearings, has been perceived locally as a victory for the Israeli legal system and women's rights. But it was also striking in its extremely categorical language, despite the lack of physical evidence and the apparent reliance on testimony, from the victims and from other witnesses who testified to similar behavior.
Katsav's legal troubles began late in his presidency when he complained in 2006 that a female employee was trying to blackmail him. The woman went to police with her side of the story, detailing a series of alleged sexual assaults. Other women then came forward with other complaints.
He resigned a year later, two weeks before his seven-year term expired. Katsav has alleged he was a victim of a political witch hunt, and his legal team says the public climate against him influenced the judges' ruling.
Prosecutors initially agreed to a plea bargain that would have required him to admit to lesser charges of sexual misconduct and kept him out of jail. But Katsav rejected the plea bargain at the last minute in 2008 and vowed to clear his name in court.
At the time, prosecutors said they offered the plea because the evidence may not suffice for a conviction.
Law professor Uriel Procaccia said that raises questions over how the final verdict was so definitive.
In light of the uncertainty, Procaccia wrote, "I find it hard to join the chorus celebrating (Katsav's) disgrace and cheering his conviction."
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