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Ephie Cohen's story raises questions not only about the Hebrew Israelite Community in Dimona, but also about the way the United States runs investigations in foreign countries such as Israel.
Cohen, also known as Mark Alan Thompson, claims that he was promised by US Embassy officials in Israel that, in exchange for serving as their informant, nine-year-old US theft charges against him (unrelated to the HIC) would be dropped. That has not happened. Cohen is currently awaiting extradition to the US. The 36-year-old father of five, originally from Indiana, is sitting in jail awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on his appeal against his extradition, which he knows doesn't have much of a chance.
Did the US Embassy make the promise that Cohen claims it made?
Cohen met with US Embassy official Kevin Whitson at the offices of Itzik Peretz in Beersheba in the summer of 2004. Peretz is the head of the National Insurance Institute's investigative department in the South and Whitson was the head of Diplomatic Security Services at the Tel Aviv embassy. Since the Black Hebrews began receiving NII benefits in 2003, Peretz has been following their case and studying each and every suit the community members file to check for fraud. Cohen served as an informant for Peretz and his deputy Shai Ohayun since 2003.
Cohen claims he agreed to provide information to US authorities during a meeting with Whitson only after he was promised full immunity and that the charges against him in the US would be dropped. According to Cohen, Whitson said he would bring him to the US, where he would appear before a grand jury which would be asked to indict Ben-Ami Ben-Israel - head of the HIC - and his 11 "princes."
"They promised me witness protection and that I would get paid and in the end I got nothing," he says. "Why would I make deals with them for nothing?"
Whitson rejects ever making such a promise, however. In a letter sent in March to the Israeli Justice Ministry, he admits to having received assistance from Cohen, but not to offering him anything in exchange.
"Although Cohen provided details specific to the US Government's case concerning the HIC leaderships and Ben-Ami Ben-Israel, no member of the RSO [Regional Security Office] or American Citizen Services made any promises or commitments to Cohen concerning the active warrant," Whitson writes in the letter.
Whitson's claim has also received the full backing of the embassy's spokesman, Stewart Tuttle, who released the following statement: "No US Embassy personnel discussed with Mark Thompson [Ephie Cohen] the prospect of affecting the disposition of any pending criminal case against him."
But despite the clear denials, The Jerusalem Post has obtained two sworn affidavits by Peretz and Ohayun that raise serious doubts as to the integrity of Whitson's claim, and strongly hint that an immunity offer had been made to Cohen during his meeting with Whitson.
The affidavits, signed in March 2005, recall how Whitson appeared at Peretz's offices and presented himself before all those present - including Cohen - as an FBI agent who was in charge of conducting an investigation against the Black Hebrew community.
"After speaking to the embassy officials [in Peretz's office], Ephie came to me all happy and said he was promised that his case in the US would be closed," Ohayun writes in his affidavit. "He also told me this promise was made to him by Kevin - the FBI officer - in exchange for his cooperation with their investigation into the Black Hebrews."
Peretz further states that shortly following that meeting in his office between Cohen and Whitson, he received a phone call from an embassy official who said she had "good news" to convey to Cohen.
"Cohen put his life on the line for all of these people," his attorney Ziva Arnesty says. "The basic assumption is that he wouldn't do all he did for nothing."
Meanwhile, Cohen and Arnesty are waiting for February, when their appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court.
What are Cohen's chances? Slim, Arnesty admits.
"Extraditing a person is a fictitious process," she explains. "The court knows already in advance that it will have to approve the request, since it all has to do in the end with diplomatic relations."
Cohen, for his part, wants to get back home to Dimona to his wife and five children. Does he regret what he did? No.
"I am against organized corruption wherever it may be," the 36-year-old says. "I got nothing against Ben-Ami, but I have something against organized corruption, and Ben-Ami just happens to be the head of it in our community."