JERUSALEM – Israel's attorney general said Tuesday he intends to indict President Moshe Katsav on charges of rape and abuse of power, a stunning accusation against the ceremonial head of state.
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A final decision on the indictment, which accuses Katsav of forcing himself on his female employees for years, would be made only after he is given the opportunity to present his case. If indicted, Katsav would be Israel's first sitting president to be charged with a crime.
Katsav's lawyers insisted he was innocent and said they believed Attorney General Meni Mazuz would abandon his plans to indict him after hearing his side of the story.
"The president believes that everyone will see that he is the victim of false charges," said his lawyer, David Libai. Some of the complainants were motivated by "revenge" after they were fired, he said.
Mazuz's decision came just days after authorities launched a criminal investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's involvement in the sale of a government-controlled bank in 2005. Several other high-level politicians have also been implicated in other scandals.
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The accusations against Katsav stem from complaints made by four women who worked for him during his tenure as president and, before that, as a Cabinet minister.
Libai said Katsav's lawyers had evidence that would help exonerate him that they planned to present to Mazuz. No hearing was scheduled, and legal authorities said it could be as long as three or four months before one takes place.
Katsav's lawyers declined to say whether he would resign, saying the president would respond to questions about his future Wednesday.
Moshe Negbi, a legal analyst, told Israel Radio that Katsav was the highest-ranking official in Israel's history to be indicted and the charges were the most severe ever recommended against a public official.
"It is a difficult day for the presidency, a difficult day for Israel. But it is also a day of light for the rule of law in Israel," he said.
Katsav enjoys immunity while in office and could be tried only after his resignation, his impeachment by three-quarters of the parliament, or the end of his term, later this year. He can stop short of resigning and temporarily step down for up to three months.
Mazuz's office said it had collected enough evidence to support an indictment against Katsav on charges of rape, harassment, sexual relations involving the abuse of power, obstruction of justice and illegally accepting gifts.
Legal authorities said the charges could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in jail, although in most cases, a convicted defendant would receive a sentence of five to 10 years.
The accusations first surfaced over the summer when one of Katsav's female employees accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. Soon after, other women leveled similar accusations, depicting a politician who harassed employees and abused power throughout his career.
Kineret Barashi, an attorney for one of the Katsav's accusers, welcomed the indictment.
"The news that there is finally an indictment against the president of the country is very satisfying — to know that the justice system does its work and doesn't hold back, even when the president of the country is involved." she said.
Mazuz declined to recommend that Katsav be charged with wire tapping and selling pardons.
Zion Amir, another of Katsav's attorneys, said the president was stunned by the announcement.
"This decision fell on him like cold water," he said. "The president plans to continue to fight until his innocence is proved."
Former Cabinet Minister Limor Livnat of the Likud, Katsav's old party, urged him to step down.
"The president must resign immediately," she told Army Radio. "There is no room for maneuvers or backflips."
Katsav's predecessor, Ezer Weizman, resigned in 2000, just before the end of his term, after the attorney general ruled that he had improperly accepted more than $300,000 in gifts from a French millionaire.
Weizman was never indicted. Other presidents had been viewed as relatively free of corruption and were expected to remain above the political fray after they took office.
Katsav's troubles erupted amid other political scandals that have darkened the Israeli government's reputation.
Olmert's ally, Haim Ramon, was forced to step down as justice minister and is now on trial after a soldier accused him of forcibly kissing her.