Misery is evident in every corner of the building at 98 Levinsky St. in south Tel Aviv. Visitors are greeted with the smell of urine. Drunk asylum seekers are sprawled out on the ground at the building’s entrance. And in the adjacent garden, under the noses of the police, the synthetic drug Mr. Nice Guy is sold to all comers.
This neglected building was the setting for one of the most serious cases in recent years to reach the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct. Two policemen serving at the nearby Sharett police station were charged with robbing foreign workers of hundreds of thousands of shekels at gunpoint. Both officers deny the charges.
Bharat Pokhrel says he was robbed of 12,000 shekels ($3,270). “It’s all I had,” he said. “Two [monthly] salaries that I planned to send to my family.”
Pokhrel, 42, a math teacher by profession, says he earned $300 a month. Nine years ago he quit teaching and came to Israel to work as a home health aide. He now takes care of an 89-year-old Israeli man.
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“Shower, bathroom, cleaning, I help him with everything, 24 hours,” Pokhrel said in broken Hebrew during a conversation in his client’s home in Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv. “The police came and took money, why? I don’t want problems, just the money, for my boy at university.”
But Pokhrel says the money stolen from him and others hasn’t been found, and the chances of him getting it back seem slim.
The indictment filed last week at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court charges two patrolmen, Bisan Yahya and Nazia Saab, of taking bribes, theft, abusing their position and breach of trust.
The first count relates to Yahya only – taking thousands of shekels in bribes from a man who gave his name as Chang, a migrant worker from China who held poker games in his apartment on Neveh Sha’anan Street.
The second count accuses Yahya and Saab of breaking into an apartment – while on duty, in uniform and carrying guns – and robbing the very man who allegedly paid them protection money. According to the indictment, they took 4,000 shekels from Chang and a similar sum from the wallet of his roommate, Lee, who wasn’t home.
“The ones who robbed me are those two, who took a bribe from me,” Chang told the Justice Ministry investigators. “It’s true I’ve given them money for a year and a half, but this time they went too far.”
When he left the apartment after the incident, he saw a patrol car pass. “Why didn’t you go to the patrol car and complain about the policemen?” one investigator asked. “I was afraid,” Chang replied.
The third count was the most serious of all. According to the indictment, on the night of June 15, Saab went to the apartment on Levinsky Street. He knew there was a safe there where migrant workers from Nepal deposited their earnings.
Saab, in uniform, allegedly kicked the door open and pulled out his gun. His patrol partner, who didn’t know what Saab was doing, was waiting in the police car downstairs.
According to the indictment, after finding 319,000 shekels in the apartment, Saab called his friend Yahya, who came over with a black bag. The policemen put the money in the bag and left the apartment. Security cameras filmed them leaving.
The next day, the Nepali workers whose money had been in the apartment went to the Sharett station where the two policemen served, hoping to get their money back. When that didn’t happen, they filed a complaint.
Yahya recognized one of them, the indictment said, adding that he and Saab wrote up a false report saying they had been in the building in pursuit of a migrant worker from India.
The Nepali community
Some 4,000 foreign workers from Nepal live in Israel today. Figures from the Population and Immigration Authority show that about a third are in the country illegally. Almost all of them work as home health aides.
One of them is Obie, 45, who asked that his last name not be used so as not to worry his family in Nepal. Like many of his friends, during the week he takes care of an elderly man, in Rishon Letzion, and on weekends he goes back to his apartment in south Tel Aviv. He left two children behind in Nepal, one who is studying at university, and every month he sends his salary back home to his family.
In their apartment on Levinsky Street, Obie and his friend have a safe in which foreign workers from Nepal deposit their money. A few of them want to keep a little bit of cash aside for entertainment, others have no residency permit to live in Israel so they can’t open a bank account.
“Everybody is afraid of thieves,” Obie said. “They give it to me and I guard it and make a proper list, they trust me.”
The list Obie and his friend finished just minutes before the alleged break-in has become evidence in the case. Another home health care aid, R., is afraid of being identified because she is worried the police will harm her.
“Many people here give Obie and his friend their money because they sometimes have time to send it to Nepal,” she said. “To send it, I need to take a day’s vacation and it’s a loss of 350 shekels.”
“He is such a trustworthy man, such a good man, he has saved penny after penny,” said Obie’s employer. “He has taken care of my husband and me for nine years. My husband is a very sick man, and he takes care of him with such devotion, so they steal money from such a man?”
At one point the conversation got interrupted – the old man had tripped and Obie jumped up to help him. “What Israelis would do this work?” the man’s wife asked.
'I knew he'd do something wrong'
On the Friday of the robbery, Obie says he counted 319,000 shekels and $18,000 in the safe. A foreign worker had deposited 40,000 shekels with him, severance pay after the man she took care of died.
According to the indictment, in the evening, Pokhrel came to deposit his two last salaries. When he went out into the stairwell, he ran into the policeman Saab.
“He told me: ‘You’re not going,’ grabbed me by the hand, kicked the door and broke in,” Pokhrel said. “When he entered he drew a small pistol; there were a few people there and he aimed it at everyone. Of course, I was frightened.”
Then Saab allegedly ordered everyone present, except for Obie, to leave the apartment and began searching for money – until he found it.
“I told him: ‘I’m not a thief, it’s not my money but that of my friends that I watch for them, please don’t take it.’ I was scared, I knew he'd do something wrong,” Obie said.
“I told the policeman: ‘I know you won’t beat me, because I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He told me to remain in the room and went somewhere else with the money. I didn’t see him put it in the bag, but when they left the money was gone. They only left the dollars.”
The main difficulty in investigating the affair was finding the complainants and taking their testimony. The Chinese foreign workers from the poker room were afraid to testify, as was Chang’s friend, who is living in Israel without a permit.
Then of course there were the language difficulties. The investigators used wiretaps, and the police’s forensic lab found that the mark on the apartment door matched Saab’s shoe.
The two police officers were traced to the scene, but the two say they were there on police business. Their lawyers say the officers were not asked to take part in a lineup to be identified, and the attorneys also say they pointed out contradictions in the victims’ versions of events. All this proves that Saab and Yahya have no connection to the crime, the lawyers say.
This week, the court ordered the two officers released, though they would have to remain in the homes of their families. The court said the two each had an outstanding record and were not arrested until the investigation was made public.
The small Nepali community in south Tel Aviv continues to talk about incident. “What kind of police kick down a door just like that? What kind of police take people’s money?” Obie asked.
As R. put it, “We’re good people, we come to work so hard all week long and send money to our family in Nepal. The policemen maybe thought we won’t complain because we’re weak, but we went to the police because we knew that something wasn’t right; we aren’t afraid.”
Pokhrel added, “When Obie told me that the money was gone and the police took it, I was in shock. The police in Nepal may steal money from people, but here in Israel?”