Yair Klein lands in Israel: 'This is a great feeling'

Former IDF Lt.-Col. released from Russian prison a day before; criticizes Israeli government and thanks the media for his release.

November 21, 2010 01:40
3 minute read.
Illustrative photo

Prison jail generic. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Former IDF Lt.-Col. Yair Klein returned home to Israel overnight Friday, three years and three months after he was arrested and jailed in Russia.

He had been held in the Russian prison awaiting extradition to Colombia, where he is wanted on charges of assisting drug traffickers and militias.

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In April, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling forbidding Russia from extraditing Klein to Colombia.

Russia appealed the decision, but the appeal was denied last month.

“This is a great feeling,” Klein told friends and family who greeted him upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, calling the Colombian warrant for his arrest “nonsense.”

Supporters swarmed around him, at one point handing Klein a large bottle of liquor as a gift. He told reporters that he missed women most of all during his stint behind bars.

Before he left Moscow, Klein told Channel 2 he would write books that would “cause chaos in Israel.”

When asked what he thought of the government’s handling of his situation, Klein replied, “This is your government, not mine.”

He credited Israeli media with his release, saying that “journalists played a large role in the struggle for my release, and for this I want to thank you.”

On June 22, 2001, the Supreme Tribunal of the Manizales district of Colombia sentenced Klein to 10 years and eight months in prison after convicting him of participating in the training and doctrine of illegal paramilitary groups.

Soon afterward, the court issued an international warrant for his arrest.

Klein was detained by Russian authorities in August 2007.

After several court cases, the Russian Supreme Court rejected his final appeal on May 22, 2008, and ordered Klein to be extradited to Colombia.Klein’s lawyers then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Russia had breached the European Convention of Human Rights by failing to examine his claims that he would be seriously mistreated if sent to Colombia. The European Court immediately ordered Russia to suspend the extradition until it investigated the case.

Columbia has sought to extradite the former military officer since he was sentenced in absentia for helping train far-right paramilitary groups in the 1980s.

The groups were responsible for mass murder and widespread land theft during more than a decadelong reign of terror across Colombia’s countryside.

Colombian courts issued the sentence in 2001. Klein was arrested by Russian authorities in August 2007 as he touched down at a Moscow airport.

Moscow released Klein after the European Court of Human Rights recommended in April that he not be extradited because of concerns he wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Colombia.

Klein was convicted of training members of the private army of the late drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose hit men killed justice ministers, journalists, judges, prosecutors – and the cartel-fighting presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989.

Klein has denied working with Colombia’s cocaine cartels and said he only instructed paramilitaries in defense tactics.

Colombia’s Justice Minister German Vargas said his country would not “stand by with arms crossed.” Officials there argued that Klein’s return to Israel was denying justice to victims of the paramilitaries.

He said in a statement that Colombian diplomats were studying legal alternatives for getting Klein to Colombia and hoped Israel, Russia and the rest of the international community would respond affirmatively.

Klein’s lawyer, Mordechai Tzibin, said his client “would be tortured and then murdered without a doubt” if extradited to Colombia.

Human rights activists are asking Israel to open an investigation into Klein’s actions during that period, in the hope that he could be tried here.

“Israel should not be a safe haven for somebody who is implicated in atrocities in Colombia,” said Jose-Miguel Vivanco of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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