Rape victim - Aug. 8, 2009 - Tomer Neuberg
A rape victim. Photo by Tomer Neuberg
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An Israeli citizen was sentenced yesterday to 18 years in prison by the Moscow military court, for organizing a vast network of sex trafficking. According to the court, from 1999 to 2007, when most of the network's agents were arrested, Avi Yanai and his accomplices sold hundreds of women for prostitution to Israel, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates and other countries. The minimal official estimate stands at 129 women, but some of the states still investigating the network put the number at several hundred. The women were lured from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Aside from Yanai, 83 people were arrested across Europe, 14 of them in Russia. The network is suspected to have produced tens of millions of dollars in profits for its operators, and some of the women trafficked may have been murdered by the Albanian mafia.

"Some people, using false documents, registered fictitious companies in Russia promising people legal work abroad, mostly in Western Europe," a senior Russian Federal Security Service investigator, Vitaliy Danilov, told the Izvestia newspaper. "They put out advertisements and people came in, bringing documents and pictures. By the time they came back to pick up their documents, work permits and Schengen-zone visas, the companies would be gone. Nobody, including the police, had any clue about why these documents were stolen." Some 2,500 passports were stolen in all. The man in charge of the passports and visas for the network was an officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dmitri Strikanov, who was sentenced by the same military court to 12 years in prison, after prosecution did not manage to prove he knew the forged documents would be used for women trafficking.

The network then recruited women with promises of legitimate work as dancers or waitresses. The women paid 3 to 5 thousand Euros, and received the passports stolen earlier with their pictures. In some cases, fake stamps were used.

"Once they got abroad, the women would end up in real slavery," Danilov said. "Sexual slavery. They didn't get any money, their passports were usually taken and there was no way home. The Albanian pimps were particularly cruel, beating them bloody for any attempted escape. From what we've heard they may have killed at least one woman."

Russian media reported Yanai was the brains behind most of the operation. Yanai, who moved to Russia in 2001, was arrested in May 2007, over a month after the rest of the group. His attorney, Karen Nersisyan, insists that his client was completely engrossed in running a legitimate business - a small filters factory - and had not broken any law.

The court refused Yanai's request to be released on a million dollar bail. The Russian media coverage was not without anti-Semitic undertones: "The Israeli Avi Yanai marched down the hall, concealing the face of a Jewish patriarch and clutching a Torah," website vesti.ru reported at one stage. The Israeli has previously been arrested in Israel on suspicions of trafficking in women. He was released under bail and had his passport confiscated, but in May 2001 managed to get the passport back under a bail of 30,000 shekels. In the six months since his arrest the Israeli prosecutors did not produce an indictment or even an indictment deadline.

His lawyer and family, however, protest his innocence. Nersisyan said that if Yanay was an organized crime boss he would have vanished in the month and a half that elapsed between the arrests of the other operatives and his own. Yanai's daughter, Limor Yanai, alleged "absurd" behavior on the part of the prosecution and accused the court of censorship. The Russian prosecutors said that Yanay would frequently accompany the women he sold to Israel, to personally present them to local mobsters. They said he would use a foreign passport on these trips.