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© Ariel Schalit/AP
Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, center, arrives at a court in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Katsav is the highest-ranking Israeli official ever convicted of a crime.
Tel Aviv, Israel - An Israeli court ordered former Israeli President Moshe Katsav to prison for seven years Tuesday following his rape conviction, rejecting his attorneys' request for leniency and making him the highest-ranking Israel official ever sent to jail.

The silver-haired Katsav broke down in tears and screamed at the judges: "You made a mistake! It is a lie! The girls know it is a lie!"

In December, the Tel Aviv Disctrict Court found Katsav, 65, guilty of raping a former employee and sexually harassing two other women who used to work for him. He also was convicted of indecent acts and obstruction of justice.

In sentencing the disgraced politician, the court said Katsav's record of public service would not be weighed in his favor, accusing him instead of exploiting his position to become a sexual offender.

The former president, who resigned under public pressure two weeks before his term was to end in 2007, went to trial after rejecting a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.

Katsav denied all allegations, claiming he was a victim of a political witch hunt and suggesting he was targeted because he is a Sephardic Jew - a Jew of Middle Eastern origin.

But a three-judge panel said on convicting him in December - on what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as "a sad day for Israel and its residents" - that his testimony had been "riddled with lies."

"When a woman says no, she means no," the panel said in its ruling.

Disgrace

The case began nearly five years ago when he complained that a female employee was trying to extort him. She went to police with her side of the story, and other women came forward with similar complaints of sexual assaults.

Though the scandal had forced Katsav's early retirement in disgrace, it had little impact on Israeli government functions, as the presidency is largely ceremonial.

But the allegations against the Iranian-born Katsav, whose rise from the slums once served as a shining example for disadvantaged Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, stirred deep emotions in Israel, where the elite has traditionally been of European descent.

The verdict was dubbed an "earthquake" by one Israeli newspaper and welcomed by women's groups that have long complained of lax attitudes to sexual harassment in workplaces.

Katsav, who is religiously observant, had cast himself as the victim of extortion and an ethnically-motivated "witch hunt."

Katsav immigrated with his family to Israel in 1951. At the age of 24 he became the country's youngest mayor and went on to hold a number of Likud cabinet posts.

Parliament elected him president in 2000 in a surprise victory over Shimon Peres, Israel's Nobel Peace Prize-winning elder statesman. Peres succeeded Katsav as president, an appointment observers say has restored dignity to the post.

The eruption of the Katsav affair had amplified corruption scandals that brought down Israel's then premier, Ehud Olmert.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.