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September 26, 2009

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Olmert has his first day in court for corruption

Former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert vigorously proclaimed his innocence yesterday in a Jerusalem court hearing that marked the first time a current or past Israeli prime minister has stood trial.

The opening of court proceedings was the latest chapter in a legal saga that weakened Olmert's leadership as he tried to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians, undermined public confidence in government and eventually drove him from office.

Entering the court, Olmert told reporters that he had been subjected to an "ordeal of slanders and investigations."

"I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime," Olmert said.

The 63-year-old Olmert left politics when his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, became prime minister last March, and has largely been out of the public eye since then.

The charges facing Olmert include illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad.

The incidents in question date from his time as Jerusalem mayor and later as a Cabinet minister, but emerged after he was elected prime minister in 2006. Olmert eventually stepped down because of the allegations, triggering elections that led to the formation of the current Netanyahu government.

The charges include fraud and breach of trust. Israel's Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.

The testimony of the American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, who said he had given Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills, helped galvanize public opinion, and in late 2008 Olmert announced he would step down.

Olmert did not testify at yesterday's brief hearing. The trial is expected to take months.


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