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Israel jails 2 former ministers

ISRAELI courts jailed two former cabinet ministers yesterday in cases highlighting what judges called a battle against corruption, months after the last prime minister was forced from office over a police graft probe.

Former Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, an ally of scandal-hit former prime minister Ehud Olmert, was jailed by a Tel Aviv court for more than five years for theft, fraud and other offences committed while he was a trade union leader.

"Courts must send a sharp and clear message ... that public figures, even those who are high-ranking and take advantage of their position and the trust given them, should expect censure, criticism and serious punishment," the court said of Hirchson.

The court gave Hirchson 45 days to appeal the decision.

In Jerusalem, the highest criminal court handed down a four-year jail term to a former welfare and health minister, Shlomo Benizri, more than doubling the original sentence issued last year for taking bribes while in office from 2000 to 2003.

Appeals judges in the case said they extended the original 18-month sentence on Benizri, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, in order to set an example and fight back against a tide of corruption in public life.

"There is a phenomenon of increasing corruption in Israeli society, to which the institutions of power have not been immune," they said, echoing the judgment against Hirchson.

"To address this scourge and act as a deterrent ... the time has come for action and to exact a higher price."

Hirchson, who was finance minister under Olmert from 2006 to 2007, was sentenced to five years and five months in prison and fined 450,000 shekels (US$115,000).

He was found guilty of stealing US$500,000 from the trade union he led before becoming a minister in the coalition formed by Olmert.

Olmert, then leader of the Kadima party, was forced to resign last year amid an investigation into corruption.


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