Ex-Israeli premier starts 19-month jail term for bribery

RAMLE (Israel) • Ehud Olmert, once feted for his peace efforts with the Palestinians, yesterday became Israel's first former premier to serve jail time as he began a 19-month sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice.

With the nation transfixed and Israeli television broadcasting live, the 70-year-old entered the Maasiyahu prison in the central city of Ramle just before 10am.

He was escorted to the prison by officers of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency as a crowd of journalists watched from nearby.

PAYING THE PRICE

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

EHUD OLMERT, in a video message released before he began his sentence.

Olmert's prison term closes a chapter in a long legal odyssey since he left office in 2009.

The charges against him date to before his time as prime minister, to the years when he served as mayor of Jerusalem and economy minister, among other positions.

In a video message released yesterday before he began his sentence, Olmert maintained his innocence. "You can imagine how painful and strange this change is to me, my family, loved ones and supporters," said Olmert, looking haggard and downcast. "I totally 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 a dear price for some of them today, perhaps too dear.

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

Olmert was initially given six years in prison in May 2014 for taking bribes in the early 2000s, in connection with the construction of Jerusalem's massive Holyland residential complex, but the sentence was later reduced to 18 months.

Last week, an Israeli court handed him an additional month for obstructing justice.

His prison sentence could still be extended further. The Supreme Court is debating his appeal against a third sentence of eight months for fraud and corruption.

The Israeli Prisons Service says he has been assigned to special Block 10, "which is intended to house prisoners who, for various reasons, cannot be placed with the general prison population".

He will join four other unidentified inmates in the block, and he will eventually have to share a cell.

Inmates are allowed to bring from home four pairs of underpants, four pairs of socks, two towels and two sweatshirts without hoods or lining. They can also bring with them one blanket, two sheets, a pillowcase and religious books and articles.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Ex-Israeli premier starts 19-month jail term for bribery'. Print Edition | Subscribe