Ex-Israel PM Ehud Olmert protests innocence in video before entering jail to begin graft sentence

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (centre) entering Maasiyahu prison near Ramle, south of Tel Aviv, on Feb 15, 2016. He begins his 19-month prison sentence on Monday.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (centre) entering Maasiyahu prison near Ramle, south of Tel Aviv, on Feb 15, 2016. He begins his 19-month prison sentence on Monday. PHOTO: REUTERS
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert leaving his house in Jerusalem to enter Maasiyahu prison on Feb 15, 2016.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert leaving his house in Jerusalem to enter Maasiyahu prison on Feb 15, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
 Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is the first former head of government in Israel to go to prison.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is the first former head of government in Israel to go to prison.PHOTO: REUTERS

RAMLE, ISRAEL (AFP/REUTERS) - Ehud Olmert, once known for his efforts to relaunch peace efforts with the Palestinians, became Israel's first former prime minister to serve jail time on Monday (Feb 15) as he began a 19-month term for bribery and obstruction of justice.

Before arriving at prison in a motorcade on Monday, he released a video statement insisting on his innocence.

Olmert, 70, entered a prison in the central city of Ramle just before 10am local time, AFP journalists reported.

"As prime minister I was charged with the highest responsibility of safeguarding Israel's citizens. Today I am the one to be locked behind bars," he said in a video released to media before he pulled up at Maasiyahu prison in a motorcade protected by bodyguards assigned to former leaders.

"At this time, it is important for me to say once more, as I did in court and outside it, that I completely deny the bribery charges I was accused of," Olmert said in the video.

"You can imagine how painful and strange this change is to me, my family, loved ones and supporters," he said, looking haggard and downcast. "I deny all the bribe charges attributed to me."

He added that "over the course of my extensive career I also made mistakes, though none of them were criminal by nature in my opinion. I'm paying dearly for some of them today, perhaps too dear".

He added: "With a very heavy heart, I'm accepting my sentence today. Nobody is above the law."

Olmert was assigned to a small wing of the prison, where he will be segregated for security reasons from the general population along with co-defendants in the real estate scandal.

He will wear a prison uniform, have two cellmates and spend his first day in jail busy with assessment sessions with a social worker, criminologist - to assess, officials say, whether he is suicidal.

Olmert was found guilty in 2014 of two bribery charges: accepting 500,000 shekels (S$180,156) from developers of a Jerusalem real estate project widely regarded as one of the city's worst eyesores and 60,000 shekels in a separate land deal.

He was sentenced to six years' jail, but the term was cut by the Supreme Court in December to 18 months after it overturned his conviction on the first bribery charge. Last month, a lower court tagged a month on to that sentence for obstruction of justice.

A separate eight-month prison term is pending since Olmert's conviction last May in another case related to cash payments he was alleged to have received from an American businessman.

Olmert is the most prominent of several Israeli politicians to be jailed in recent years. They include former president Moshe Katsav, convicted of rape, and present Interior Minister Aryieh Deri, once imprisoned for corruption.

A lawyer by profession, Olmert began his political career in the 1970s as a lawmaker who targeted organised crime.

During his premiership from 2006 to 2009, he was internationally credited with working towards a peace accord with the Palestinians, until graft scandals forced him to step down.

As Israel's leader, Olmert waged war against militants in Lebanon in 2006 and the Gaza Strip in 2008.

He claimed significant progress in talks with the Palestinians, offering an Israeli withdrawal from much of the occupied West Bank, though no agreement was reached.