JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav walked free from prison on Wednesday, winning early release five years after he was put behind bars for rape in a landmark case that disgraced the country's political system but also delivered a key victory for women's rights.
Katsav exited the Maasiyahu prison in central Israel, accompanied by his wife, Gila, and other family members. Wearing a dark suit and skullcap, Katsav smiled but did not comment to a crowd of reporters before getting into a car and driving away.
His lawyer, Zion Amir, told Channel 10 TV that he had a short phone call with an emotional Katsav and planned to see him later in the evening at his home in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi.
"He's happy and confused and angry and satisfied," Amir said.
Dozens of supporters greeted Katsav as he arrived at his home, shrieking with joy, warmly hugging him and hoisting bouquets of flowers.
Katsav, 71, was sentenced to a seven-year term in 2011 after being convicted of two counts of raping an employee and sexually harassing other women. Last week, a parole board accepted his request for early release, saying the disgraced politician, who has denied any wrongdoing, had undergone a "change" behind bars. It had rejected previous requests for parole.
Katsav's downfall jolted Israeli politics. Seen as a rags-to-riches success story, Katsav was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel as a child, growing up in impoverished tent camps and Kiryat Malachi, a hardscrabble town in southern Israel. He was elected mayor of the town at age 24, becoming the youngest mayor in Israel's history and launching a rapid rise in the nationalist Likud Party.
He held a series of Cabinet posts before parliament selected him to be president in 2000. He engineered the upset victory over Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres by rallying ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties behind him.
Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, typically filled by a respected elder statesman expected to rise above politics and serve as a moral compass. Most political power is in the hands of the prime minister.
The allegations against Katsav forced him to resign in 2007, two weeks before his term was to end, paving the way for Peres to assume the office.
Katsav was convicted of two counts of raping an employee in 1998, when he was Israel's tourism minister. He was also convicted of lesser counts of indecent acts; sexual harassment involving two other women who worked for him when he was president, from 2000 to 2007; and obstruction of justice.
Katsav denied all allegations, claiming he was a victim of a political witch hunt and suggesting he was targeted because he is a Sephardic Jew — a Jew of Middle Eastern origin. At his conviction, he even shouted at the judges, saying "The lies have won!" But in their ruling, the three-judge panel said his version of events was "strewn with lies."
The verdict was seen as a victory for the Israeli legal system and for women's rights in a decades-long struggle to chip away at what has often been the nation's male chauvinist culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties. At the time, he was the most senior politician ever to go to prison. He was later joined by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is now serving a 19-month sentence on corruption charges.
In an interview with the AP the night before going to prison, Katsav insisted he was innocent and said he had always been faithful to his wife. In interviews from prison, he continued to insist on his innocence.
The parole board twice rejected Katsav's requests for early release. But last week, it said he could go free after seeing changes in his behavior.
"There is no doubt...the prisoner underwent a change," the parole board wrote in its decision. The board said it questioned Katsav about his actions and their consequences, and was "impressed by the honesty of his answers."
Under the terms of his release, he cannot travel abroad for two years or grant interviews to the media, and must not leave his house after 10 p.m. He has been ordered to attend weekly therapy sessions, and will not be able to serve in any position in which he oversees women.