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Shas Leader Deri Gets Four Years; Sentence Could Affect the Elections

A Jerusalem court has sentenced the charismatic leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party to four years in prison for taking bribes.

Aryeh Deri, an ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was convicted last month of pocketing $155,000 while holding several positions in the Interior Ministry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The combined charges had carried a possible maximum sentence of 15 years. Three other co-defendants in the case, convicted of paying the bribes to Deri, were sentenced to lesser jail terms and fined.

While reading out the sentence, Judge Ya’acov Tzemach stressed the unprecedented severity of Deri’s offenses. He said they did not involve “the isolated failure of a young man swept away by the political machine, but” someone who “systematically took bribes for five years, even as interior minister.” He added that Deri “stopped only after a police investigation was launched.”

The conviction and sentencing could affect the results of Israel’s May 17 elections.

Deri was responsible for the evolution of the 15-year-old Shas Party into a political force, and the party’s supporters, who are primarily of Sephardi background, contend that the elitist Ashkenazi establishment made the Moroccan- born 40-year-old a political scapegoat.

With 10 seats in the Knesset, Shas is presently the third-largest party in the Knesset behind the Likud and Labor parties, but some observers are predicting it could eclipse that number in the next Knesset.

Immediately following the sentencing, some of Deri’s supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse began singing and dancing. At the same time, there were angry exhortations and tears.

“He’s our father, our leader,” cried out one supporter.

Deri directed his lawyer to immediately appeal the sentence.

Netanyahu called the sentencing of Deri a “difficult day.” He said all individuals must act in accordance with the law, including politicians.

Several politicians called for Deri to immediately resign as leader of Shas, including Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid, Labor Knesset member Uzi Baram of the “One Israel” list and Knesset member Benny “Ze’ev” Begin of the right-wing “National Union” list.

Deri was late to Thursday’s sentencing because he had been at the bedside of Shas’ spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who had undergone heart surgery.

Doctors treating Yosef said he was in stable condition.

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