The Good Life of Criminals Who Flee to Israel

Amid cumbersome extradition procedures, Jewish suspects from France and the former Soviet Union find sanctuary via the Law of Return

Eddie Abittan and his wife on "Master Chef Israel."
Screen grab from Keshet

Eddie Abittan, who moved to Israel from France 16 years ago, feels comfortable in his new-ish home. So comfortable, in fact, that when his wife competed in (and won) the reality show “Master Chef Israel,” he showed up with their children, mugged for the cameras, and ran to hug her and the judges when she was declared the winner.

But the next day Channel 13 News reported that Abittan had been convicted in absentia in France, sentenced to six years in prison and fined 1 million euros in a high-profile fraud case. At issue was the purchase of carbon dioxide emission quotas (based on the Kyoto Protocol) while skirting 1.6 billion euros in value-added tax.

Abittan is said to have built financial networks in tax havens around the world to hide money from the French authorities. Abittan thus doesn’t dare visit his birth country, but no extradition request has been filed yet because he has appealed his conviction.

“My client is marginal to this case,” says his lawyer Yaron London, a former head of the  Israel Police’s international crimes desk. “It’s true he got six years, but he believes this was a mistake. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no reason he can’t appear on ‘Master Chef.’ The media portrayed it as if he ran away. That’s nonsense.

“Over the past few years, French investigators have been here to investigate, and I’ve accompanied them. Extradition, if it comes up, won’t be a simple matter. In the past, France was in no hurry to extradite French criminals who committed crimes in Israel and escaped to France. If France asks for his extradition, it’s clear this will be fought over.”

Abittan isn’t alone. Hundreds of Jews have taken advantage of Israel’s Law of Return in the hope they would not be extradited. But in the last two decades, based on legislation from the late ‘90s, Israel has ramped up its number of extraditions.

FILE:  Malka Leifer is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Mahmoud Illean / AP

A high-profile case at the moment is of former school principal Malka Leifer, who has been in Israel for 11 years – and in detention since February 2018 – after fleeing Australia amid charges she raped three of her students, all sisters. A court is once again considering whether Leifer should be extradited. Her lawyers argue that she is mentally unfit to stand trial.

Sometimes a conviction abroad haunts people like Abittan. He’s in the real estate business in Israel, but after his conviction in France, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot refused to provide loans to a high-rise project he took part in.  

In many cases, it’s possible to keep doing business once you’ve arrived in Israel. Gregory Lerner, for example, came to Israel in the early ‘90s amid corruption charges in the former Soviet Union, and was later accused of defrauding Israeli investors. He was also suspected of trying to bribe Israeli politicians in order to set up a bank. In 2006, Lerner was extradited to Israel by Paraguay and was convicted of defrauding investors.

Alex Khan, one of the people convicted in the French case, spent 15 months behind bars in France, and later moved to Israel. He has been sentenced to six years in prison in France and is now appealing. According to his lawyer, Mordechai Katz, he arrived in Israel with a valid Israeli passport.

“The problem isn’t with the people facing extradition,” says attorney Gal Levertov, a former head of the international department at the State Prosecutor’s Office and the author of the Hebrew-language book “Criminals Without Borders. “These people are treated according to the law, and if there is enough evidence against them and all the conditions for extradition are met with no mitigating circumstances protecting them, they’re extradited.

“The problem is with criminals who come to Israel and turn it into their base of operations, with no extradition requests in their case. Some try to launder their operations and might link up with local politicians; this becomes a strategic problem.”

A Frenchman who lived in Israel until recently is Gilbert Chikli, who convinced French bankers to transfer money to his account and later fled to Israel. He was extradited and was behind bars for two years in France, but due to technical problems regarding the extension of his detention he returned to Israel. He has given media interviews about his operations, and in 2017 went to Ukraine, from where he was extradited to France.

Alex Khan, who is suspected of corruption in France.
Moti Milrod

Jews arresting Jews

In a February 2018 interview with Channel 10 News, Israel’s ambassador in Paris estimated that France had more than 10 extradition requests outstanding with Israel, with more expected in the coming years.

“There are many wanted men in Israel,” says Alain Avshalom, a former superintendent  on the French desk at the police’s international department. “There are French people in Netanya who haven’t returned to France for seven or eight years – even when their parents died – out of fear they’d be arrested.”

He says that during one arrest he made, the suspect told him: “I’m a Jew. I bring money to this country. Why are you arresting me?”

Avshalom says he responded: “The money you brought is illegal, you stole it from the authorities abroad.” The detainee answered: “What does it matter what I did? I bring in money, I’m Jewish.”

Avshalom says this view is fairly common. “These people were in shock that we were helping the French authorities locate and interrogate them,” he says. “In their mind, Jews don’t do such things to other Jews.”

In the Abittan case, there are at least four other convicted people living in Israel, including Haroun Cohen, Fabrice Sakoun, Avi Ben-Ezra and Alex Khan. Another convicted person, Michel Keslassy, lived in Israel for three years, but in 2016 he visited France under a false name and was arrested and jailed.

Other suspects in the affair, against whom the French authorities did not manage to file charges, are also thought to have come to Israel. Much of the money of the people convicted in this case is believed to have been laundered in Israeli real estate projects.

France has requested the extradition of several of these suspects. For example, Ben-Ezra was sentenced to four years in prison. France requested his extradition last year, but people close to him predict that this won’t happen due to flaws in the request; they say this is the reason state prosecutors agreed to release him. Ben-Ezra is currently trying to agree to terms with the French authorities through his lawyer, Yaniv Segev.

Whereas Ben-Ezra is contesting the extradition request, there has been no request in the case of two other men who were convicted and sentenced to prison, Sakoun and Khan. Khan received a sentence of seven years. A civil suit was filed against him in Israel, and 22 million shekels ($6.2 million) of the 95 million he was suspected of receiving illegally were recovered.

Gilbert Chikli, who was extradited and was behind bars for two years in France before returning to Israel
Associated Press

Avshalom knows the cases of Khan and Sakoun well. “We’ve laid our hands on 100 million shekels that they brought to Israel,” he says. “Sakoun got eight years and Khan got seven, but in Israel they’re living like kings.”

Khan says he wasn’t involved in the scam. “Someone sent me money. At first I didn’t know its source, that’s why I was linked to this affair,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to France, because anyone caught there would be given a rough time.” Khan currently lives in a large house in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood.

The more details emerge, the more one might ask why France didn’t seek the extradition of everyone involved in the Abittan case. A senior French legal official notes the enormous resources required for a process that might not succeed.

“It takes a lot of work to get Israel to approve extradition,” the official says. “There are many reasons for this, one being the differences in the two countries’ legal systems.”

Ukraine and Moldova

Before the last decade, it was former Soviet citizens, not French people, who were the most high-profile extradition candidates. Some of them managed to obtain Israeli citizenship.

One of them was Semion Mogilevich, originally from Ukraine, who was considered one of the top Russian mafia bosses in the world. He has Israeli citizenship after moving here in the ‘80s.

“Israel is a refuge for oligarchs and other criminals who ran afoul of Russian law,” says Alex Tenzer, a social activist among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He notes that many oligarchs have Israeli citizenship even though they don’t live here or could move here under the Law of Return. They obtained citizenship through connections, thus they have an insurance policy if they ever have to flee.

In recent years, many high-profile Ukrainians have been coming to Israel, especially after the 2014 revolution there. One is a former energy minister, Eduard Stavitsky, who escaped to Israel after the revolution. Stavitsky, who changed his name to Nathan Rosenberg, is suspected by Kiev of taking part in millions of dollars  worth of corruption.

In Ukraine, photos allegedly show 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of gold and $5 million in cash that were found at Stavitsky’s house, but in a February 2018 interview with Israel’s Channel 10, he denied that the pictures were from his home and said Ukraine fabricated the charges against him.

He said he knew he’d win asylum when he came to Israel because of the Law of Return. A few months earlier, Interpol canceled an arrest warrant against him; apparently he can now visit anywhere in the world except Ukraine.

Another person who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union is Moldovan businessman Ilan Shor, who was born in Israel but left at age 3. In 2015, he was placed under house arrest, since lifted, on suspicion of carrying out a huge embezzlement in Moldova, in a case in which more than a billion dollars were allegedly stolen from three large banks. This amounted to one-fifth of Moldova’s GDP at the time.

Moldovan media reports say he escaped a full arrest by bribing judges; last August there were reports in Moldova, citing Interpol, that he fled to Israel.

Shor, a former head of the Israel-Moldova Chamber of Commerce who owns a chain of duty-free stores and an insurance company, was the CEO of a bank that was hit by the embezzlement charges. Moldova’s central bank eventually had to nationalize the country’s banks, and in 2017, Shor was sentenced to seven and a half years for his part in the affair.

When the scandal blew up, Shor decided to run for office and was elected mayor of the city of Orhei. Last year he was elected to the country’s parliament. According to the foreign media,  Shor, who is married to a Russian singer, travels around Europe in private jets and has been seen at an upscale nightclub and hotels on the French Riviera. He has also bought a soccer club.

Gregory Lerner, who came to Israel in the early ‘90s amid corruption charges in the former Soviet Union and was later accused of defrauding Israeli investors, at the Tel Aviv District Court in 2006.
Moti Kimche

According to Ariel Marom, a political activist who has met with Shor a few times abroad, Shor took advantage of political procedures and appeals he filed to escape arrest. “For two years he was waiting for the appeal and then he was elected to parliament.  In July there was a coup and he had to flee the country,” Marom says.

“I’ve met with him several times. He’s not a hard-core mafioso, but he’s suspected of taking an active role in robbing Moldova’s public coffers for many years. Moldova is a bad state and doesn’t know how to utilize its strategic location between Russia and Europe. This is partly due to the widespread corruption there, which began the day the Soviet Union collapsed.”

Currently, most of the Israelis who are wanted by Interpol are from the former Soviet Union. Regarding Russia, some of the allegations may be political and unrelated to corruption.

“Along with Israel being an asylum for fugitive criminals, it’s also a haven in the positive sense of the word – for Russian citizens who are persecuted by the Putin regime for political or financial reasons,” Tenzer says. “The classic example is the three businessmen who owned the oil company Yukos.”

Tenzer is referring to Vladimir Dubov, Mikhail Brudno and Leonid Nevzlin; the latter owns a 20 percent stake in Haaretz. With a fourth Yukos owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they were charged with a string of corruption offenses. In Nevzlin’s case, the charges also included conspiracy to commit murder.

Russia requested the extradition of Nevzlin and Dubov, but the High Court of Justice agreed with the state that there was insufficient evidence. The three men, who deny the charges, say they are being politically persecuted.

“It’s not surprising that Nevzlin’s extradition request was turned down,” says attorney Ram Gamliel, an expert on international law. “There are Russian businessmen who went to France, Britain and Germany due to persecution. Israel, considered a country that seriously weighs extradition requests, is looking at whether hidden motives are behind the request.”

The Russian newspaper Kommersant ran an article this month on senior scientist Pavel Kudryavtsev, who fled to Israel. The paper said that between 2004 and 2010, Kudryavtsev and his son produced synthetic compounds that are considered illegal because they can help manufacture amphetamines. Allegedly amounts that could produce 500 million doses of amphetamines were smuggled to Europe. Pavel’s son Ilya is currently in prison in Russia.

The elder Kudryavtsev denies the charges, citing political persecution. “This has been going on for 14 years. I meant to come to Israel anyway, but I came earlier due to these charges, which also have an anti-Semitic backdrop. The Russian authorities said I’d end up like Khodorkovsky,” Kudryavtsev told TheMarker by phone.

“I was producing a raw material that was permitted until 2011, and I stopped two years before that. I cooperated with the antidrug authorities, helping them by producing a compound they could use in their investigations. As soon as I stopped, they went after me.”