By Rami Amichai
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was sentenced to seven years in jail for rape on Tuesday in a case that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said showed "that no person is above the law."
Katsav had denied charges he twice raped an aide when he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s, and molested or sexually harassed two other women who worked for him during his 2000-2007 term as president.
But a three-judge panel at Tel Aviv District Court said when convicting him in December that his testimony had been "riddled with lies."
"The defendant committed the acts as any man and as any man he must bear the punishment," the judges said at sentencing, adding that in the face of the grave offences, his clean record and stature were insufficient grounds for granting leniency.
One Israeli newspaper called the verdict an "earthquake" and it was welcomed by women's groups that have long complained of lax attitudes to sexual harassment in workplaces.
Israeli media reported Katsav burst into tears after shouting out at the judges: "The women lied...injustice is being done here. You have caused the lie to triumph...you've made a mistake, sir."
At the end of the hearing that lasted less than an hour, Katsav, 65, was whisked out of court by family members and bodyguards and a scuffle broke out between one of his sons and media crews trying to photograph the former president.
The court told him to report for the start of his jail term on May 8. His lawyers said they will lodge an appeal.
Netanyahu said in a speech in Tel Aviv that it was a day of "sadness and shame ... but also a day of deep appreciation and pride" that the court had showed no one was above the law.
Although the scandal had forced Katsav to step down in disgrace, it had little impact on Israeli government functions, as the presidency is largely a ceremonial position.
But the allegations against the Iranian-born Katsav, whose rise from the slums once served as a shining example for disadvantaged Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, stirred deep emotions in Israel, where the elite has traditionally been of European descent.
The religiously observant Katsav had cast himself as the victim of extortion and an ethnically motivated "witch hunt."
He immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951 and at 24 became its youngest mayor and went on to hold a number of Likud cabinet posts.
Parliament elected him president in 2000 in a surprise victory over Shimon Peres, Israel's Nobel Peace Prize-winning elder statesman. Peres then succeeded Katsav as president, an appointment observers say has restored dignity to the post.
The Katsav affair amplified corruption scandals in 2009 that brought down Israel's then premier, Ehud Olmert.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Louise Ireland)