Israeli ex-PM Olmert freed from jail

Ehud: from promise to prison

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (left), exits prison after his sentence, in Ramle, Israel on July 2. The parole board of Israel’s Prison Service has granted Olmert early release from prison. Prison Service spokesman Assaf Librati says the board granted Olmert’s request to reduce a third of his 27-month incarceration sentence. (AP)

RAMLA, Israel, July 2, (AFP): Israeli ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert was freed from prison on Sunday after being granted parole from a 27-month sentence for corruption scandals that brought down his promising political career. Olmert, the country’s first former premier to serve jail time, did not speak to reporters when leaving the Maasiyahu prison in central Israel.

Wearing a dark-coloured T-shirt, he was seen exiting the jail shortly after dawn on Sunday before being driven away to his home in Tel Aviv, accompanied by Israeli security agents. The 71-year-old, premier between 2006 and 2009, was convicted of graft and entered prison in February 2016. He was granted early release by a parole board on Thursday, reducing his sentence by around a third. Prosecutors decided not to appeal the decision.

The conditions of his parole were not made public, but Israeli media reported that they include reporting to police twice a month and a ban on leaving the country. He must also volunteer at associations that help the poor, Haaretz newspaper reported. He can request a pardon from President Reuven Rivlin that would lift the restrictions. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told army radio she would favour such a request. In March, Rivlin rejected a request for clemency by Olmert, but said he could consider pardoning him if he were granted parole.

Olmert, of the centre-right Kadima party when prime minister, resigned in September 2008 after police recommended he be indicted for graft. He however remained in office until March 2009, when right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in to the post, which he has held ever since. Olmert won international acclaim for relaunching peace efforts with the Palestinians at the Annapolis conference in the United States in 2007, but they failed to bear fruit and the corruption charges against him have come to define his legacy. The parole board said last week that while Olmert’s crimes were “severe,” he was “punished for his deeds and paid a heavy price.” “The inmate underwent a significant rehabilitation process in prison and displays motivation to continue it,” it said. The decision came after Olmert was recently rushed to hospital after experiencing chest pains in prison. The former premier underwent examinations which determined he was healthy and he returned to prison after a number of days. A picture of a gaunt Olmert in hospital robes eating from plastic utensils found its way to social media, evoking a wave of sympathy from the public as well as politicians calling for his early release. Olmert could still face new criminal charges, though some Israeli media reported that the probe is expected to be dropped.

Last month, the state attorney’s office instructed police to investigate suspicions Olmert had smuggled a chapter of a book he was writing out of prison, an act that would constitute a felony due to the “secretive” content, the justice ministry said. Olmert’s lawyer Yehiel Gutman said the book would especially focus on his legal troubles. “His book contains 1,200 pages and deals with very long periods of time in his public life as well in his personal life,” he told army radio.

Ehud Olmert was once described as “probably the best” politician Israel ever produced, but the debonair expremier who was released from prison on Sunday has seen a humiliating fall from grace. Olmert, 71, became Israel’s first exprime minister to serve jail time when he walked into the Maasiyahu prison in the central city of Ramle in February 2016 for the 27-month term over corruption scandals. He was granted early release by a parole board last week, shaving about a third off his sentence. He did not speak to reporters when leaving prison on Sunday.

Once known for relaunching peace efforts with the Palestinians while prime minister between 2006-2009, Olmert is now likely to be remembered for allegations that led one judge to speak of “corrupt and filthy practices.” A balding father-of-four with a lean physique, roguish grin and a reputed taste for fine cigars, Olmert maintained his innocence in a video message before entering prison. “You can imagine how painful and strange this change is to me, my family, loved ones and supporters,” Olmert said in the video. He added that he believes the public will eventually see that “while I was prime minister, there were sincere and promising attempts” to reach peace. The main allegations against him date to before his time as prime minister, to the years when he served as mayor of Jerusalem and economy minister, among other positions. Olmert was born near Haifa on Sept 30, 1945 during the British mandate of Palestine.

A lawyer by trade, he surprised many right-wing friends in the early 1970s by marrying left-leaning artist Aliza Richter, who brought up their children with equally liberal views. He entered the cabinet in 1988 and five years later was elected mayor of Jerusalem, a post he held for a decade but in which he rarely distinguished himself, before returning to the government under Ariel Sharon in 2003. With Sharon, he broke away from the right-wing Likud party in 2005 to form the centre-right Kadima and became premier the following year after Sharon suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. Before taking over as prime minister, Olmert was recognised as a key strategist behind many of Sharon’s boldest moves, including Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as well as their split from the Likud. Time magazine was so impressed that it dubbed him “the 12th Israeli to serve as prime minister and probably the best politician of them all”.

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