The Good Life of Criminal Suspects Who Flee to Israel
21 Oct 2019

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.

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.

By Shuki Sadeh, Haaretz, 21 October 2019

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