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Olmert Corruption Trial Begins In Israel

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

In Jerusalem today, a corruption trial got underway. It's no ordinary trial, though. The defendant is the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert. It's the first time in Israel's history that a former head of government has been brought to trial on criminal charges. Olmert resigned from office a year ago after he was indicted, but he maintains his innocence.

As Sheera Frenkel reports, the effects of the trial are resonating across Israel.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SHEERA FRENKEL: This was the scene at Ehud Olmert's party headquarters, during a holiday toast made in his first year as prime minister in 2006. It was rife with discontented voters. Dozens of protest groups united under one cause: to bring the then-prime minister to justice. Their calls reverberated far into the Israeli public, and have spurred a lasting movement for greater government transparency.

Today, Olmert went on trial for fraud, breach of trust and failure to report income. According to the indictment handed down by Israel's attorney general, Menahem Mazuz, it is a watershed moment for those seeking to reform Israel's electoral system. Michael Partem is a lawyer with the Israeli government watchdog, The Movement for Quality Government.

Mr. MICHAEL PARTEM (Attorney, The Movement for Quality Government): We, the country, the public has come a long way in terms of demanding accountability and transparency, and in upholding public officials to a higher standards of norms in terms of the public good. Otherwise, you know, we wouldnt have had the prosecutions and indictments that we have coming down now, which I take as at least partly being a good sign.

FRENKEL: In the last month, two former Israeli ministers have begun serving jail sentences for crimes committed while they were in office, while several more are under investigation. In addition, Israel's former president, Moshe Katsav, is currently on trial charged with rape and sexual assault. Partem said the wave of elected under public scrutiny could mark a turning point for the Israeli government.

Mr. PARTEM: Talking about watershed moments, I mean you have a prime minister being indicted and a president going on trial. It's got to have an impact. You know, I really - I was looking at the indictment today, you know, and you see the word prime minister there in the indictment. And you pause because it's really an indictment of an entire society and country, when the highest elected official is accused of such behavior.

FRENKEL: Most of the offenses Olmert is accused of were committed during his time as Cabinet minister and as mayor of Jerusalem. Shalom Yerushalmi is a political commentator at one of Israel's largest daily newspapers, Ma'ariv. He was one of the first journalists to report on Olmert's allegedly corruption.

Mr. SHALOM YERUSHALMI (Political Commentator, Ma'ariv): (Through translator) Dozens of people get to his rank in society and can't resist the temptation. With Olmert, it was unique. It stood out because he did it in a careless manner.

FRENKEL: Israeli legal experts say that Olmert could face years in prison if he is found guilty. His trial will likely last months and the list of 280 witnesses includes some of the biggest names in Israeli business. Outside the courtroom today, Olmert again rejected the charges.

Mr. EHUD OLMERT (Former Prime Minister, Israel): (Through translator) I come here as a man innocent of any crime. And I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime.

FRENKEL: But Yerushalmi says that many Israelis may have already judged him.

Mr. YERUSHALMI: (Through translator) You won't find anyone here anymore that likes Olmert. People dont like that he used the public, his position of authority to better himself and his family. There is one message here from the public to its officials: We won't tolerate this type of behavior, stop it.

FRENKEL: For now, the voices of protest outside Olmert's party headquarters have quieted, but Israelis are waiting to hear what will be said inside the courtroom.

For NPR News, Im Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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