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Israeli political leader goes to jail after emotional send-off
Sephardic Jews promise revolution
RAMLE, Israel -- The former leader of Israel's powerful Shas party, Aryeh Deri, began serving a three-year sentence for bribery and fraud on Sunday.
He walked into jail after a remarkable send-off that was part protest, part election rally, part prayer meeting and part music concert
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox, mostly Sephardic Jews waved "free Deri" signs outside the Nitzan prison near Tel Aviv and competed to touch Deri as he made his way onto a stage to address his supporters.
After Deri went through the prison gates, the mood of the crowd changed.
About 50 demonstrators threw stones at riot police. Four protesters, two policemen and a Reuters cameraman were hurt, none seriously, police said.
Israel's Supreme Court sentenced Deri, a 41-year-old father of nine, to three years in jail after convicting him on several corruption charges.
As director-general of the interior ministry and then as interior minister, Deri took bribes from three associates, also convicted of bribery, the court found.
Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi
The emotional scene at the prison as Deri's fall from grace was completed brought to the surface the undercurrent of tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that runs through Israeli society.
"We won't forget. We won't forgive," read banners held by the crowd, mainly religious Sephardic Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East.
Supporters of Deri, a Sephardic Jew, have said Israel's courts are controlled by an "Ashkenazi elite," or Jews of European descent, whom they say conspired to bring down the Moroccan-born politician in the hope of weakening Shas.
Some in the crowd angrily promised a "Sephardic revolution."
"My heart is with you, and your heart is with me together, and together, God willing, we will continue this revolution," Deri told his supporters before going to jail.
Moaning and praying, the crowd shouted, "We forgive you."
"We were all tried, we are all imprisoned," said a banner decorating the stage where Deri sat beside Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual leader.
The demonstration was condemned by Tommy Lapid, a Shinui party member of parliament. "Solidarity with somebody who was caught stealing public money is as immoral as possible, and to do it on behalf of God Almighty is I think a sacrilege," he said.
Barred for 10 years
Deri is expected to be released in 20 months if he earns a good behavior remission. He will then be barred from holding any Cabinet positions for 10 years.
"This is not an easy day, it is a very difficult day," Eli Yishai, Shas' chairman, told army radio. "The person going to prison today is the leader of the Sephardic revolution, a valuable man, an important man."
Deri brought his party to power in the 1980s, championing the rights of lower-class Israelis of Sephardic origin. By balancing his party on the delicate line between right and left, Deri made Shas a maker and breaker of governments.
Deri used the corruption conviction to claim in the 1999 general election that the court was racist. Shas stunned many in Israel by winning 17 seats in last year's ballot, up from the 10 legislators it had previously in the 120-member parliament.
After the election, Deri resigned as party chairman.
Shas quit Prime Minister Ehud Barak's ruling coalition on the eve of the Camp David, Maryland, peace summit between Israel and the Palestinians in July, which ended without an agreement. Members of the party said they feared Barak would make painful concessions to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat without a mandate from the people or clearly defined limits for concessions. Although most of Shas' supporters are hawkish, the party has backed past peace moves.
Shas's desertion with two other right-wing parties left Barak with a minority in parliament and almost no chance of getting any peace deal he might yet reach with the Palestinians approved by the Knesset.
Powerful Netanyahu ally sentenced to 4 years in prison
The Knesset - The Israeli Parliament
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