A three panel Tel-Aviv Court yesterday convicted former Israeli President Moshe Katsav of numerous counts of sexual offences including sexual assault, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice - all involving former work colleagues and employees. The Court found that Katsav's testimony was "riddled with lies" and accepted, almost wholeheartedly, the evidence of the complainants.
The case took four years to make its way to the Courts - during which time - the former President had reached a plea bargain deal - which he then refused to conclude, opting to try his luck with a full defence instead.
The Court has not yet released a full written version of its reasons - but has released excerpts. The Court held that Katsav raped one woman twice - and then embarked on a course of harassment after she rebuked him. He was also found to have repeatedly and improperly hugged and groped two other employees of the President's residence, creating an inappropriate and highly uncomfortable workplace environment.
The Court went on to hold that Katsav repeatedly lied to the Court, obstructed justice and even forged a diary entry.
Although it is expected that Katsav will appeal the decision - many commentators believe that he is highly unlikely to succeed, particularly since the Court provided such detailed reasons for its decision. It methodically dissected the allegations and Katsav's responses - and came to its conclusions. Overturning such a factually driven decision in an appellate court is a very steep challenge.
In one respect - the decision is shocking and upsetting. To think that the President of Israel (a head of state position - largely ceremonial - like a Governor General position) would act in such obscene fashion - while holding office is unfathomable. It certainly tarnishes the image of the office and leaves many people wondering about the character of those who succeed politically (while the Israeli public is also thinking about Ehud Olmert, Arie Deri and others.
On the other hand, the conviction is a significant victory for democracy, the rule of law and for equality in Israel. It demonstrates, at least in this case, that even a President is not above the law. Despite putting tremendous resources into this fight and attempting to discredit the various complainants in every possible way, Katsav was still unable to defeat the judicial process.
The conviction is also a very strong message that victims of sexual harrassment, assault and other workplace impropriety can come forward and can have their voices heard - even if the process may take a while. Israeli Courts will take these matters seriously irrespective of the status of the accused. That is certainly a comforting signal for the enhancement of equality and the elimination of the scourge of these types of offences.
From a Canadian legal perspective, the criminal process here included elements that in Canada would have been considered criminal offences (sexual assault, obstruction of justice) and other elements that in Canada would have been considered civil matters - or the grounds for complaint under applicable Human Rights legislation. The idea of criminalizing sexual harassment - that is, making it a criminal offence to engage in quid pro quo and other forms of sexual intimidation - seems to make eminent sense.
It is expected that the Supreme Court appeal will likely take about 18 months. It is certain to be bitterly contested - as suggested from some of the comments released from the Katsav camp. Yet it may also be an opportunity for the Israeli Supreme Court to weigh in with its pronouncements on the standards for conviction in these circmstances - and the seriousness of these types of offences.