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Israeli ex-PM Olmert freed from prison after parole in graft case

Olmert, the country's first former premier to serve jail time, did not speak to reporters when leaving the Maasiyahu prison in central Israel.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L), 71, leaves the Maasyahu prison, on July 2, 2017 in Ramla. Israeli ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert was freed from prison after being granted parole in a corruption case that reduced his sentence by a third. The 71-year-old Olmert, premier between 2006 and 2009, was convicted of graft and entered prison in February 2016. He had been sentenced to 27 months. JACK GUEZ / 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.

‘Paid a heavy price’
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.

‘Secretive’ content?
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.

“The most interesting things that he wrote are actually about the judicial system and about the era of his trials.”

Olmert’s original 27-month prison term was comprised of 18 months for taking bribes in the early 2000s in connection with the construction of Jerusalem’s massive Holyland residential complex; eight months for a separate case of fraud and corruption; and another month for obstructing justice.

The main convictions against him dated to before his time as prime minister, to the years when he served as mayor of Jerusalem and economy minister, among other positions.

In a video message released just before he began his sentence, Olmert, a debonair man reputed to have a taste for fine cigars, maintained his innocence.

“You can imagine how painful and strange this change is to me, my family, loved ones and supporters,” said Olmert, looking haggard and downcast. “I totally deny all the bribe charges attributed to me.”

He added that “over the course of my extensive career I also made mistakes, though none of them were criminal by nature in my opinion. I’m paying a dear price for some of them today, perhaps too dear.

“With a very heavy heart, I’m accepting my sentence today. Nobody is above the law.”

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