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Israel ex-PM's graft trial begins

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives at court for his trial

The trial of the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges has begun in Jerusalem.

Mr Olmert, the first Israeli prime minister to stand trial, denies charges of failing to declare income, breaching trust and falsifying corporate records.

The charges relate to the periods when Mr Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and a cabinet minister, but before he became the Israeli prime minister in 2006.

As he arrived in court, Mr Olmert insisted he was not guilty.

"I came here as an innocent man and I believe I will leave here as an innocent man," he said.

ANALYSIS
Paul Wood
From Paul Wood, BBC Middle East correspondent:

The first criminal prosecution of a former Israeli prime minister is certainly a historical curiosity - but its political significance is all in the past.

The corruption allegations drove Mr Olmert from office. So a prime minister willing - albeit for reasons for national self-interest - to negotiate seriously about Palestinian statehood has been replaced by one who will do so only grudgingly and under US pressure.

There seems surprisingly little outrage - or even interest - in the Olmert case among ordinary Israelis. That is reflected in the limited and muted media coverage of the indictment.

Partly that is because of how long this whole affair has been going on - a three year ordeal as Mr Olmert himself described it on the way into court. Partly it is a measure of general cynicism about Israeli politics, which has not always been seen as clean in the past.

The issue of campaign finance, in particular, has led to many investigations of other Israeli politicians - although Mr Olmert is the most senior to find himself on the defendants' bench.

Mr Olmert said he had been subjected to "an almost inhumane campaign of mudslinging and inquiries" for the past three years.

His lawyers have described the prosecution case as ridiculously weak.

Resignation

Ehud Olmert was forced to resign last September over allegations that include taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments from an American businessman, Moshe Talanksy.

Mr Olmert insists they were legitimate donations for election campaigning, but Mr Talansky has hinted they were also used to fund a liking for fine hotels, cigars, pens and watches.

The prosecution will state Mr Olmert over-charged Jewish charities $92,000 (about £60,000) for trips abroad through a sophisticated system of double-billing.

The money was allegedly kept in a secret account and used to pay for holidays and other travel for Mr Olmert's family and his family.

Mr Olmert did not testify during the court appearance. Evidence will be heard from February, with hearings taking place three days a week, the Israeli media reported.

Some reports estimate that the case may last as long as four years. If found guilty Mr Olmert faces a lengthy prison term.

In a BBC interview broadcast on Thursday, Mr Olmert scoffed at suggestions he might go to prison.

Ehud Olmert became prime minister in May 2006, after serving a number of months as acting prime minister following the stroke and subsequent coma of then PM, Ariel Sharon.



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