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Middle east

Former PM Olmert's graft trial begins



Latest update : 2009-09-25

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes on trial Friday to face multiple graft allegations, becoming the country's first ex-premier to face criminal charges. He could be sentenced to five years in jail for each charge.

REUTERS - Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went on trial in Jerusalem on Friday on corruption charges, confidently predicting he would be acquittted of fraud, breach of trust and failure to report income.

"I came here as an innocent person and I believe my innocence will be proven," said the 64-year-old centrist politician, who was forced to stand down last year because of the allegations that he took cash for favours.

Olmert is the first Israeli premier to stand trial.

He stayed on as caretaker leader but was succeeded as Kadima party leader last September by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who won a plurality of votes in the general election last spring but failed to secure a viable coalition.

Rightist Benjamin Netanyahu took over as head of government.

Olmert told reporters outside the courtroom in Jerusalem that he had been the target of an "unfair" legal witchhunt for three years and was anxious to clear his name.

He denies any wrongdoing. He is accused of taking money from a U.S. businessman, advancing the interests of clients of a former law partner and double-billing charities for expenses incurred on fund-raisers.

Olmert's alleged crimes relate to his time as mayor of Jerusalem and as industry and trade minister before he became prime minister in 2006 as head of the centrist Kadima party.

Legal experts say if he is found guilty he could face up to five years in jail for each of the four charges.

A U.S. businessman has testified that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Olmert says the money was used for electioneering, denying he benefited personally in return for advancing the businessman's interests.

Olmert's trial is the latest in a series of scandals involving politicians in a country where legal authorities say they are waging a battle against corruption. In June, Israeli courts sent two former cabinet ministers to jail for corruption.

Olmert resigned as prime minister in September 2008, saying he wanted to clear his name, but stayed on as caretaker until March 2009 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning government was sworn in.

Olmert said he achieved significant progress in talks with the Palestinians aimed at securing a final Middle East peace deal, but the talks were suspended in December.

Date created : 2009-09-25