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Police have cracked what they say is Israel's largest human-trafficking ring, allegedly responsible for smuggling thousands of women from the former Soviet Union into Israel, as well as Cyprus, Belgium and England, and forcing them into prostitution.

At the end of a two-year international investigation, 12 Israelis were arrested yesterday along with over 20 suspects in several other countries. The suspected ringleader is Rami Saban, 35, of Moshav Magadim in the north, who was previously under investigation for alleged involvement in bringing hired killers from Belarus to assassinate leading Israeli underworld figure Nissim Alperon.

Police say the women were forced to work as prostitutes, and any who sought to escape or inform the authorities suffered vicious reprisals. The gang allegedly even arranged a fatal hit-and-run accident in Uzbekistan a few months ago, involving a woman who did escape.

The investigation was assisted in large part by a former criminal, who was recruited as an undercover agent and infiltrated the trafficking ring on the police's behalf. He recorded dozens of conversations among the suspected gang members, including some in which Saban allegedly ordered physical violence against, and even murder of, women who refused to work as prostitutes.

The gang allegedly recruited thousands of women from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Uzbekistan by promising them work in Israel as waitresses or dancers. The women were then flown to Egypt, and from there they were smuggled across the border by Bedouin.

A year ago, a joint operation by the Israeli and Russian police forces nabbed 13 Israelis and Russians suspected of involvement in the trafficking ring. Those suspects are currently under arrest in Russia. Then, last night, a second group of suspects was detained, including Saban.

According to Chief Superintendent Pini Avraham of the Tel Aviv Police's Central Unit, this is the largest trafficking ring in Israel, and one of the largest in Europe.

"The suspects essentially went on a shopping spree for women throughout the former Soviet Union," he said. "We are talking about over 2,000 women who, we suspect, were forced to work as prostitutes via threats and violence, in Israel and Cyprus and, later, in Belgium and England as well."

Avraham explained that the ring initially focused on bringing women to Israel, but last year's arrests made the gang leaders nervous, so they began transferring their operation to Cyprus. "There, they opened strip joints that employed dozens of women as prostitutes using threats and violence."

In addition to the suspects arrested in Israel yesterday, suspects were also arrested in Russia, Belarus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Police say Saban is a member of the Abutbul crime organization, and suspect that he was involved in that capacity in bringing in hired killers from Belarus to assassinate members of the rival Alperon clan. Another suspect in that case - a Belarus national, who fled Israel shortly before four of his colleagues were arrested and tried - is also thought to be a member of the trafficking gang.

Yesterday's arrests follow the police's closure last week of three striptease clubs in Ramat Gan, due to suspicions that the strippers were doubling as prostitutes, and of three possible whorehouses near the old Tel Aviv bus station. Altogether, the Tel Aviv Police's Central Unit shut down 71 suspected brothels last year, up from only about 20 in 2007. Their efforts to combat traffic in women earned them the President's Prize, which they will formally receive later this month.