JERUSALEM - Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted Thursday of raping an aide and sexually harassing two other women, a verdict hailed as evidence of the nation's independent judiciary and a reminder that no one is above the law.
The case, one of the most serious ever brought against a high-ranking government official here, drove Katsav from office in 2007. Although the spectacle of a president being brought up on rape charges became a source of national embarrassment, many found solace in the judges' verdict.
"It attests to the strength of Israel's democracy," prosecutor Ronit Amiel said after the ruling. "This day teaches us that world leaders and also presidents will be brought to court when needed, and that is a symbol of honor for the state of Israel."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "a sad day for Israel" but praised the court's message "that all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body."
After the Tel Aviv court announced its decision, cheers erupted from women's-rights groups picketing outside.
Dana Pugach, attorney at the Noga Legal Center for Victims of Crime, said the decision reflected the court's confidence in the women, who Pugach said showed courage in making an accusation against a sitting president.
"It is their determination and perseverance that brought [us] to this day," Pugach said.
The former president, 65, who has denied the charges, left without commenting.
Katsav's case was the highest profile of a string of investigations in recent years targeting Israeli officials, most of them involving corruption allegations. The list includes every prime minister of the last 14 years, one other former president, two previous Jerusalem mayors, and numerous cabinet ministers.
Few indictments and still fewer long prison sentences have resulted from the investigations; many cases have been dropped.
Katsav was convicted of two counts of rape, as well as sexual harassment, a forced indecent act, and disruption of trial. He was acquitted of badgering a witness.
Judges dismissed his version of events as "unserious" and "riddled with lies."
The scandal broke in July 2006 when the president - in an apparent effort to defuse the matter - complained to the attorney general that he was being blackmailed over a sensitive matter.
Eventually, government prosecutors focused their investigation on Katsav, particularly after additional women came forward with complaints of sexual assault and misconduct. The cases date from when Katsav was tourism minister and continued into his tenure as president, a largely ceremonial post.
At one point, Katsav agreed to a plea bargain on lesser charges but backed out of the deal, saying he wanted to prove in court that he was innocent.
The women's identities were kept confidential during the two-year trial.
Katsav's son, Ariel, said the family remained proud, saying, "Our father, Israel's eighth president, is innocent." The family says it will appeal.