Israel's former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom on Friday for a hearing that marks the first time any current or past Israeli leader has stood trial. The opening of court proceedings is the latest chapter in a legal saga that weakened Olmert's leadership, undermined public confidence in government and eventually drove him from office. The 63-year-old Olmert left politics when his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, became prime minister last March.
Olmert, who has been largely out of the public eye since leaving office, entered a Jerusalem courtroom Friday saying that he is "innocent of any crime" and that he believes the court will agree. Olmert faces charges of illegally accepting funds from an American supporter and double-billing Jewish groups for trips abroad, among others.
The accusations date from his time as Jerusalem mayor and later as a Cabinet minister, but emerged when he was already prime minister. Olmert, who was prime minister from 2006, eventually resigned because of the allegations.
"I come here as a man innocent of any crime, and I believe I will leave here as a man innocent of any crime," Olmert told reporters at the court.
The formal charges include fraud and breach of trust. Israel's Justice Ministry has not said what penalties Olmert could face, but the fraud charge alone could carry a prison term of up to five years.
The testimony of the American supporter, businessman Morris Talansky, who said he had given Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of it in envelopes stuffed with bills, helped galvanize public opinion, and in late 2008 Olmert announced he would step down.
Olmert was not expected to testify at Friday's hearing.