(photo credit: AP)
Tel Aviv Police have arrested 12 men in recent days on suspicion of operating a network that smuggled women from Eastern Europe into Israel, and later into Cyprus, while using violence and intimidation to force the women to work for escort services.
The timing of the police's announcement on Sunday, International Women's Day, was purely coincidental, a Tel Aviv Police source told The Jerusalem Post.
"The arrests were supposed to happen last week, but they were delayed because a few suspects were abroad," the source said. "I'm happy it fell by chance on women's day," he added.
An undercover agent helped to gather evidence against the network, which had opened an escort agency in Cyprus and had planned to move operations out of Israel due to the increasingly harsh penalties being handed down by Israeli judges against sex trade operators.
Ch.-Supt. Pini Aviram, head of investigations at the Inquiries Department for Tel Aviv Police's Central Unit, told the Post that the man believed to be the head of the smuggling network, 35-year-old Rami Saban, from the North, was also linked to a 2005 plot by reputed Netanya mob boss Asi Abutbul to assassinate his underworld rivals, including the late Yaakov Alperon, and his brother, Nissim Alperon. Yaakov Alperon was reputed to have run Tel Aviv's third-largest crime family, the Alperon Crime Family.
Four hitmen were flown in from Belarus for the job, joining 14 Israeli assassins, before police pounced on the death squad four years ago. "Saban was interrogated in the Belarus hitmen affair as a main suspect [in 2005]," Aviram said, adding that he was not indicted, due to a lack of evidence.
A fifth member of the Belorussian assassination cell, who is currently in custody in Belarus, went on to serve as Saban's contact man for setting up the sex trade network.
"The suspect [Saban] exploited his contacts with local crime networks in the countries of the former Soviet Union," Aviram said.3
Tel Aviv Police have released a video of Saban conversing with fellow suspects at an East European cafe in June 2006.
The conversation centered on a woman who had been working for the network and who later attempted to escape the intimidation designed to keep her in the sex trade, by filing a complaint with police.
"The minute she lands in Uzbekistan, she is finished," Saban is heard saying. "I told him to take a $100,000 in cash... Don't ask, her ass is done, nothing can help her."
"This is only one sample of the large quantity of video evidence we have gathered," Aviram said, adding that East European police forces had monitored the suspects at the requests of Tel Aviv Police.
The network included suspects in Russia and Ukraine, and 13 of its members have been in Russian or Ukrainian custody for a year.
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