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World - Middle East

Israeli court convicts political kingpin

March 17, 1999
Web posted at: 4:01 a.m. EST (0901 GMT)

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli court convicted political kingpin and Sephardic leader Aryeh Deri on Wednesday of taking a bribe, fraud and breaching public trust in a climax to a political trial that has underscored ethnic tensions in the Jewish state.

Supporters of Deri, leader of of the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party, cried outside the courtroom when they heard the news. Many had charged the nine-year-old affair discriminated against Jews like Deri of Middle East and North African origins.

Judge Yaacov Zemach, head of a three-judge Jerusalem District Court that began hearing the case in 1993, read excerpts from the 917-page verdict. In an unusual move, Israeli radio and television broadcast the reading live.

The court acquitted Deri, 40, of a second bribery charge and another that he falsified documents while director-general of the Interior Ministry and later minister.

The case has heightened ethnic tensions ahead of Israel's May 17 election. Shas champions the cause of Israel's Sephardic underclass, Jews who trace their roots to Arabic-speaking countries and complain of historic discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazic elite -- Jews of European descent.

With 10 seats in the 120-member parliament, Shas often controls the balance of power in the divided house. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has actively courted Deri and Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in the election campaign.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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