JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — An Israeli court sentenced Moshe Katsav, the country’s former president, to seven years in prison for rape on Tuesday.
The sentencing is the latest stage in a sordid drama that Israel’s leaders point to as proof of the principle of equality before the law, but one that has also seen the prestige of Israel’s highest office brought to a historic low.
Mr. Katsav, who has consistently maintained his innocence, burst into tears upon hearing the sentence, according to reports from inside the Tel Aviv courtroom, and shouted at the judges that they had made a mistake, crying out: “It is a lie! The girls know it is a lie!”
In December Mr. Katsav, 65, was convicted of forcibly raping an employee — identified only by her first initial, A. — on two occasions while he was minister of tourism in 1998.
The court also convicted him of sexually abusing and harassing another woman and of harassing a third while he was president — a distinguished, if mostly ceremonial, position that Mr. Katsav held from 2000 to 2007. He was also convicted of obstruction of justice.
The sentencing came four years after accusations of sexual offenses were made against Mr. Katsav while he was still the head of state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the sentencing that this was “a day of sadness and shame” for Israel, “but it is also a day of deep appreciation and pride for the Israeli justice system.”
He added: “The court issued a sharp and unequivocal ruling on a simple principle, that of equality before the law; nobody is above the law, not even a former president, all are subject to the law. This distinguishes the State of Israel in a very large region.”
Mr. Katsav is expected to begin his sentence in early May, after the Passover holiday, though it is likely that he will appeal.
One of his lawyers, Zion Amir, told Israel Radio, “Regarding the sentence, I have no doubt that this was not the last word.” Mr. Amir said he was not surprised by the sentence in light of the “harsh” verdict against Mr. Katsav. Many Israeli legal experts said the punishment was fitting given both the gravity of Mr. Katsav’s crimes and the added weight of his public standing.
Rape verdicts usually carry a minimum sentence of 4 years and a maximum of 16 in Israel. The judges said in their ruling that the fact that Mr. Katsav had been president was no reason for leniency. On the contrary, they said, he had abused his authority and standing in order to carry out his crimes.
They wrote that Mr. Katsav’s acts had “brought disgrace on the symbol of the institution of the presidency.” In addition to the seven-year sentence, Mr. Katsav received a two-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay compensation to two of his victims. No television cameras or radio microphones were allowed in the courtroom during the proceedings and most of the trial took place behind closed doors.
Mr. Katsav had contended that the rape accusation was a plot by the former Tourism Ministry employee, who he said was seeking revenge after she was fired. But the judges who convicted him cited evidence that contradicted Mr. Katsav’s testimony, which they said they found “false.”
Expressing a minority opinion, Yehudit Shevach, one of the panel of three judges who handed down the sentence, said that four years’ imprisonment and more compensation would have been sufficient punishment. She cited what she called the “trial by media” and remarks by the then-attorney general, who described Mr. Katsav’s behavior as that of a “serial sex offender” even before he was formally charged. Mr. Katsav’s lawyers also argued that he had been demonized and condemned by the news media and by leaks and statements from public figures before the trial started.
The other two judges, George Kara and Miriam Sokolov, argued that the unprecedented publicity, some legitimate and some not, was a result of Mr. Katsav’s high standing.
Miriam Rosenthal, a lawyer and former Tel Aviv district attorney, said that the court had neither lightened the sentence nor penalized Mr. Katsav unduly because of the high post he held.
Mr. Katsav resigned from the presidency in disgrace in 2007, two weeks before the end of his seven-year term, to a chorus of public criticism over a deal he had reached with state prosecutors.
According to its terms the rape charges against him were to be dropped in exchange for an admission of guilt for lesser offenses. Mr. Katsav was to serve no jail time under the deal. But in a dramatic courtroom twist in April 2008 Mr. Katsav backed out of the plea agreement, saying that he wished to fight for his innocence in court.