JERUSALEM, March 17 (JTA) — The conviction of a powerful Israeli political leader on charges of taking bribes, fraud and breach of public trust could raise ethnic tensions among Israelis in advance of the upcoming elections. A three-judge panel in Jerusalem’s District Court on Wednesday handed down its long-awaited verdict in the trial of Arye Deri, leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Among the most serious offenses, Deri was found guilty of pocketing some $155,000 in bribes and trips abroad during the 1980s while serving as director general and later head of the Interior Ministry. In exchange for the bribes, Deri was convicted of siphoning off state money for institutions linked to Shas and of giving out other political favors. Deri was cleared of lesser charges relating to bribery and fraudulent record-keeping. The Moroccan-born Deri, 40, has served in both Likud- and Labor-led governments. Supporters of his party, who come mainly from Sephardi backgrounds, have maintained that the case against Deri was driven by ethnic bias. Given the widespread public interest in the trial, Wednesday’s court session was broadcast live on Israeli television and radio. Shas activists also gathered outside the courthouse. Some cried when the guilty verdict was read; others danced and waved flags in support of the party leader. Police said some Shas activists burned tires in a Jerusalem neighborhood in response to the conviction. Security was stepped up around the three judges who ruled in the case. For the most part, however, activists heeded calls from Deri and other party leaders to respond with restraint to the verdict. Deri instructed his lawyer to appeal the verdict. A pre-sentencing hearing was set for March 25. He faces up to 7 years in prison. on the bribery convictions alone. Deri said he “bore no grudge against anyone.” He reiterated the call for activists to direct their energy into “good works and the Torah,” and said it was providential that “the verdict has come down two months before elections.” Shas, which holds 10 seats and is the third largest faction in Israel’s Knesset — behind Likud and Labor — hopes to capitalize on the ruling. Shas sources were quoted as saying they did not expect the conviction to affect Deri’s leadership of the party. Deri, who resigned as Interior Minister in 1993 when he faced indictment, still serves in the Knesset. His conviction for bribery bars him from serving as a minister for 10 years. Reacting to the verdict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom the Shas leader is close, said he felt for Deri and his family. However, Netanyahu stressed that “Israel is a state of law.”
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