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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Former Shas leader to leave prison
Aryeh Deri speaks to reporters
Aryeh Deri will be released from prison on Monday
Aryeh Deri, the former leader of Israel's largest religious political party, will be released from prison next week but says he will not seek a political role.

However, the current head of Mr Deri's ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Eli Yishai, says the former leader must return to help the movement, despite his conviction for corruption.

Aryeh Deri outside his prison near Tel Aviv
Deri was allowed out of prison regularly during his sentence

Mr Deri, a former cabinet minister, has remained popular with Shas supporters - mostly Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin - despite being jailed in September 2000 for taking bribes.

He will be released on parole on Monday - more than a year before his three year sentence is up - and is barred from politics for one year.

'Good behaviour'

But despite the ban, and even before he has left the minimum-security Maasiyahu prison near Tel Aviv, there is already speculation about whether he will stage a political comeback.

Mr Deri spoke to reporters after the parole board's decision on Wednesday to free him early for good behaviour.

"I thank God first of all," Mr Deri said, pledging to "devote a lot of time to the public...to help those at the margins of society".

He did not give any further details of his plans.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz says he told the parole board that he did not "intend to return to political activity in the foreseeable future" but that he would "continue in public service, but in frameworks other than politics".

Shas election posters in 1999
Shas has 17 seats in the Israeli Knesset

'Day of celebration'

Mr Yishai, the current Shas leader, said Mr Deri's release would be "a day of celebration for all of us".

But the celebrations must be followed by a return to political life with Shas, Mr Yishai said in a statement.

"I think he must return to politics...We will need to work together for the most important thing, for the movement and strengthening it," he said.

However, there was speculation in the Israeli press that the charismatic Mr Deri actually posed a threat to Mr Yishai's leadership of the party, which has 17 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.

The Moroccan-born Mr Deri was a key player in Israeli coalition governments, but was convicted of taking a total of $155,000 in bribes while director-general of the interior ministry and later as interior minister.

Mr Deri is also banned by law from serving as a cabinet minister for 10 years because of his conviction.


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