Israeli lawyer caught in Romanian scandal

Syrian-born client allegedly dabbled in weapons trafficking.

rebecca crime watch 88 (photo credit: )
rebecca crime watch 88
(photo credit: )
A haredi lawyer from Kfar Chabad is embroiled in a scandal in Romania that threatens to bring down the government, after he briefly represented a Syrian-born businessman who was indicted by Romanian authorities for terrorist activity and corruption. A few days ago, attorney Mordechai Tzivin informed the Romanian legislature he was prepared to address its Parliamentary Control Commission for SRI (the Romanian Information Service) regarding alleged corruption in the country's secret services and government. Tzivin told The Jerusalem Post he learned about these matters while representing Omar Hayssam, whom he described as the 13th richest man in Romania. In January 2006, Tzivin said, he received a message asking him to help Hayssam obtain a release from jail because he was suffering from cancer. Hayssam was suspected of involvement in the kidnapping of three Romanian journalists by terrorists in Iraq in 2005. The abduction was allegedly engineered by Hayssam and his cousin, Muhammad Munaf, who served as the journalists' interpreter. An Iraqi court recently sentenced Munaf to death for his role in the affair. According to Tzivin, Hayssam, 55, was sent by Syrian intelligence to Romania 24 years ago, where he studied engineering. Over the years, he became the right-hand man of Romanian president Ion Iliescu and emerged as a tycoon with control of large parts of the lumber and mineral trade. His wealth was estimated at approximately $100 million. Iliescu was defeated in national elections in 2004 and succeeded by a bitter rival, Triain Basescu. According to Tzivin, the Iliescu government was famous for its corruption and was refused entry to the European Union because of it. He said Basescu was anxious to prove he would fight corruption. In April 2005, Romanian security forces arrested Hayssam on suspicion of financial crimes. But Hayssam found himself in further trouble the following month after the abduction of the three Romanian journalists in Iraq. Romanian authorities have not released many details on the allegations against Hayssam. The affair has triggered intense speculation for the past two years. One of the suspicions is that Hayssam bribed politicians, policemen and intelligence agents and participated in weapons trafficking on behalf of Syria. Tzivin, who specializes in representing Israelis arrested abroad, met with Hayssam several times in February 2006. Hayssam said he had cancer and wanted Tzivin's help in obtaining a release from jail on humanitarian grounds. Tzivin told the Post that even before he met Hayssam in jail, his family signed a document promising to help Israel retrieve the body of Eli Cohen, an Israeli agent who was executed in Syria in 1965, in return for help in getting Hayssam out of jail. Nothing came of the deal. Tzivin blames Israel's Foreign Ministry for failing to take action. A ministry spokeswoman said Tzivin should have taken the matter to the proper government authority. Tzivin succeeded in getting Hayssam released to house arrest. Not long afterward, Hayssam disappeared and somehow managed to escape to Syria. The "somehow" has aroused more curiosity and controversy in Romania, and Tzivin has contributed his share to it. In a meeting with journalists, the Israeli lawyer quoted Hayssam as telling him, "Just arrange a meeting for me with the president for five minutes. He and I know some things." This comment aroused suspicions in Romania that there may have been illicit links between Hayssam and Basescu. There is also the question of how Hayssam managed to slip out of Romania despite surveillance by the security police. Two deputy ministers and two security officers were fired following Hayssam's escape, according to Tzivin. Meanwhile, another development reported in the Romanian media added fuel to the flame. Supposedly, Interpol Israel has a tape of a conversation between an Israeli businessman and a wealthy Syrian-Romanian who had close personal and business ties with Hayssam and plans to run for parliament. Much of the conversation allegedly regards smuggling Hayssam's wife and children out of Romania. Tzivin's agreement to testify before the parliamentary committee has become the latest focus of interest in the case. The opposition parties and the party of Romania's prime minister, the largest faction in the coalition, all hope Tzivin will link Basescu to Hayssam and to corruption, a development that would likely lead to new elections.