Israel Interpol chief denies he traded antiques for visas

Sources close to Dep.-Cmdr. Asher Ben Artzi spoke out Thursday against the charge that he had arranged visas to the United States for Israeli underworld figures, even as US Embassy officials told The Jerusalem Post that investigators had never contacted them regarding the claims against him. Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm of the Jerusalem US Consulate said that as of Thursday, neither investigators from the Police Investigations Unit nor from the Israel Police had contacted the consulate to probe the visa files of suspects in the case. The Tel Aviv Embassy's Consular offices, which also deal with visa applications to the US, also said that no investigators had contacted them. Embassy officials said that even if contacted, although they would do everything in their power to assist in the investigation, the question of visa applications is particularly sensitive. Strict confidentiality is followed, with even the applicants themselves unable to find out why their applications were accepted or rejected. The Police Investigations Unit (PIU) announced Monday that it is investigating charges that Ben-Artzi, the head of Interpol in Israel, helped criminals obtain entry visas to the US from unnamed officials in the American consulate in Tel Aviv. Investigators believe that he received gifts of antiquities in return for his alleged intervention with the US consulate, and said that the charges that he could face include fraud and breach of faith. "What we are seeing is a modern-day Colosseum," said attorney Lior Epstein, who is representing Ben-Artzi. "We take people and humiliate them as a sort of national entertainment." Sources close to the police officer emphasized Thursday that Ben-Artzi had never attempted to conceal his passion for antiquities, nor his impressive collection of artifacts, many of which were on display at his office in the police National Headquarters. He has been collecting antiques for over two decades. Epstein added that when PIU detectives approached one of the antiques dealers who allegedly made one of the suspect transactions with Ben-Artzi, the dealer said that Ben-Artzi was not the same police officer who had secured antiquities from him at reduced prices. Ben-Artzi's collection, according to Epstein, is not so much valuable as it is sentimental, and estimated the total worth of the artifacts, some of which date to the first-century "Great Rebellion", at NIS 20,000. Epstein also denied all claims that Ben-Artzi had intervened to provide anybody with visas. In one case, he said, the officer had requested that an applicant's appointment be shifted by a couple of hours. But that, he concluded, was the extent of Ben-Artzi's dealings with the officials. The investigation has been proceeding for over two months. Ben-Artzi, who was questioned by investigators at the onset of the probe, was ordered to take a forced vacation two weeks after the investigation began. Ben-Artzi's status was discussed earlier this week at a meeting at the Israel Police's National Headquarters. Yaakov Katz and Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.