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Israel: ex-PM Olmert jailed for six years

(Tel Aviv) ) Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced today to six years in prison for his role in a wide-ranging bribery case, capping a stunning fall from grace for one of the most powerful men in the country. The Tel Aviv district court handed down the punishment in the Jerusalem real estate scandal case related to Olmert’s activities before becoming prime minister in 2006. The sentence followed a guilty verdict that was handed down by the same court in March.

Olmert, 68, who stood stoically in the courtroom in a navy blue shirt, has insisted he is innocent and that he never took a bribe.

Olmert’s spokesman Amir Dan said he would appeal against both the verdict and the sentence to Israel’s Supreme Court.

“This is a sad day where a serious and unjust verdict is expected to be delivered against an innocent man,” Dan said, shortly before sentencing.

According to the verdict, millions illegally changed hands to promote a series of real estate projects, including a controversial housing development in Jerusalem that required a radical change in zoning laws and earned developers tax breaks and other benefits.

At the time, Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and was accused of taking bribes to push the project forward.

Olmert was forced to resign as prime minister in 2009 amid a flurry of corruption allegations.

At the centre of the case was the Holyland housing development, a hulking hilltop project that Jerusalem residents long suspected was tainted by corruption.

The case broke in 2010 on the strength of a businessman, Shmuel Dechner, who was involved in the project and turned state’s witness. Dechner died last year from an illness.

The indictment against Olmert laid out one of the largest corruption scandals ever exposed in Israel.

It accused Olmert of seeking money, through a middleman, from Holyland developers to help out his brother, Yossi, who fled Israel because of financial problems. According to the indictment, Yossi Olmert received about £60,000.

Ehud Olmert was also accused of asking the middleman to help out city engineer Uri Sheetrit, who also had money woes. Sheetrit later dropped his opposition to the broad expansion of the Holyland complex, which burgeoned from a small development into a massive, high-rise project that sticks out from its low-rise neighbors. According to the indictment, Sheetrit received hundreds of thousands of pounds in bribes.

Among those also sentenced today was Sheetrit, who was sent to prison for seven years. A series of other former government officials, developers and businessmen were sentenced to terms of between three and five years.

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