Analysis

The Guilty Escape Justice: After Sex Worker's Suicide, Israeli Court Sends a Chilling Message

By handing out light sentences, and not trying the main culprit in a case involving a notorious Tel Aviv brothel, the legal system and police fail to protect the vulnerable in the prostitution industry

A rally held in commemoration for the victims of prostitution near the brothel on Yarkon Street, 2018
Tomer Appelbaum

Jessica had been a sex worker for 20 years when she committed suicide in a Tel Aviv brothel in 2015. She was 36.

On Tuesday, the woman who owned the property where the brothel operated, close to a popular beachfront, received a two-month suspended sentence. The Israeli police and legal system closed their eaayes to Jessica's plight and allowed those responsible to evade justice.

The victim, known only by her first name, had moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union as a youngster. At age 16, she began working as a prostitute at a brothel on Dizengoff Street, a central Tel Aviv thoroughfare that runs parallel to the beach. When it closed, her pimp opened another brothel only 100 yards from the U.S. Embassy, at 98, Yarkon Street. It became well known over the years, operating seven days a week, from dusk till dawn. Nine women worked there. Jessica was one of the first.

“She would begin her shift by drinking four glasses of vodka and taking [amphetamines],” said Sharon, a sex worker who befriended Jessica over the years. “She would do about 20 or 30 customers before knocking off at 6 A.M,” she added. “At the end of her shift, she would bury herself in bed in the little room, number 5. The brothel emptied of clients, and she would wake up the next day for another 12-hour shift, and a long line of men.”

On August 13, 2015, Jessica didn’t appear for her shift. “It was always hard to wake her up,” Sharon recounted. “They knocked on the door harder than usual, and called her again and again – but the door stayed closed.” When they finally managed to open it, they discovered that Jessica had hanged herself, naked.

Yet just three hours after she took her life, it was business as usual at the brothel. It was a Thursday, the end of the workweek, and the establishment – full of clients – didn’t want to lose any business.

Ten days later, after demonstrations drew large crowds of protesters to the site, the police finally served the brothel with a 30-day closure order. But the operators were not deterred: A few days after the order expired, they published an ad promising workers “big money fast, in excellent conditions.”

In a phone call with Tatiana Ferman, who managed the brothel together with her husband Igor, Haaretz realized something the police had overlooked: The brothel was still working. “We operate without fear. We’re working as usual. There are lots of clients. Come tomorrow and see for yourself – you can come and make money,” she told Haaretz.

On January 2, 2017, an indictment was served. The establishment’s low-level management – the Fermans – were accused of running the brothel and procuring prostitutes. Dennis Makokha, a homeless drug addict, rented the place as a front man, thus abetting use of the premises as a place of prostitution.

But the main player – the operator of the brothel since it started – was not mentioned. The actual pimp was allowed to evade punishment and to this day remains anonymous, not even appearing in court.

The Fermans were convicted in January 2018 and, following a plea bargain, sentenced to three months’ community service. Makokha received a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 2,000 shekels ($577), again following a plea bargain.

Dalia Tarufa, one of the owners of the building at 98, Yarkon Street, Tel Aviv Magistrates' Court, January 8, 2020
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The indictment also led to the conviction of Dalia Tarufa, 55, who owns a third of the property (the rest of the building belongs to her aunt and her brother). Tarufa was convicted of renting the building out for prostitution and distributing the proceeds to her partners. In a rare ray of light, this was the first time the court had legally held to account the owners of a building after it was knowingly rented to criminals, and helped the sex industry flourish.

But the sentence Tarufa received on Tuesday - a two-month suspended sentence over three years and a 4,000-shekel fine - is not enough of a deterrent to keep property owners from collaborating with brothel owners. It’s an even lighter punishment than the one the Fermans and Makukha received.

Tarufa confessed, but said she avoided going into the brothel and wasn’t exposed to what was happening there. However, according to the verdict, “from 2010, the accused was told from time to time, once every few years, that a brothel was operating on the property, yet she continued to rent it, collect the money in cash, and sign a rental agreement under suspicious circumstances.”

A report by a parole officer states that Tarufa “had difficulty fully acknowledging her responsibilities, and tended to limit the severity of her actions, seeking to place the blame on law enforcement” for not acting on the matter. According to the report, Tarufa is mainly focused “on the price she is required to pay today, and has difficulty relating directly to the harm women experienced and that she took part in the operation of the place as a brothel.”

Tarufa’s sentence is surprising in light of a directive issued by outgoing State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan in April 2018, which focuses on secondary players – such as those who rent premises to others for use as a brothel – and states that those individuals should serve up to six months in prison. This was intended to give law enforcement and prosecutors tools to deal with prostitution and human trafficking.

The brothel where Jessica worked, at 98 Yarkon Street, Tel Aviv, 2015
Ofer Vaknin

There are also many details missing from the verdict. For example, Tarufa ignored an October 2015 Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court order that her building be used solely for residential purposes.

A year after that order was served, Haaretz reported that the property owners had broken the law and that a “motel” had opened at the location, with a sign stating “rooms for rent by the hour” hung from the gate. A city hall spokesperson had confirmed that “a new business is operating at the site, renting rooms without a permit.”

During the 2015 hearing, Tel Aviv district prosecutor Dalia Abramoff disclosed that, two weeks before Jessica committed suicide that summer, a discussion was held about whether to issue the brothel with a closure order – but the police decided against it. In her verdict, Judge Dana Amir pointed to the responsibility of the police: “Despite conducting raids on the premises for a year, the police did not act to close it down and did not take criminal action against those involved until the unfortunate suicide.”

Tarufa was the last person convicted in the affair. Judge Amir explained why she imposed a light sentence of Tarufa: “I considered that this is an offense that is not the most serious in the criminal code, and it is fundamentally about the desire to produce a monetary profit,” she stated.

The sentence was “intended to help uproot the exploitation of women and men in prostitution," Amir added, "and to protect important societal values such as the right to dignity and autonomy.”

Attorney Igor Yutkin, who represents Tarufa, said: “We have now received the court’s verdict. We believe the court did not give enough weight to the failures of the police and the prosecution. We will study the verdict in depth and decide whether to appeal it.”

A rally held in commemoration for the victims of prostitution near the brothel on Yarkon Street, 2018
Tomer Appelbaum

In light of Tuesday’s verdict, the responsibility of the prosecution and the courts should also be noted. The prosecutor, Abramoff, admitted in 2015 that “in the past, attention was paid to the struggle against trafficking women, and that now there is renewed importance with regard to patterns of local prostitution.”

Jessica was the one person who was almost completely ignored in court. She remained invisible, as she had been for most of her life. But her suicide shows how a brothel can become a prison for sex workers. Jessica had a passport – it had not been confiscated – but she was chained to the brothel and its operators from a young age. Her tragic death has led to widespread public debate and shifting perspectives, opening the eyes of many to the huge level of exploitation in the prostitution industry.

Jessica’s friend, Sharon, who helped uncover this story, told Haaretz that Jessica’s suicide should lead people “to act, so this cry will echo and begin to change the agenda of police enforcement, the work of the courts, and Israeli society as a whole.”

Tuesday’s shameful verdict shows that the road to eradicating the phenomenon remains a long one.