Israel extradition law offers help to alleged criminals

The issue emerged in September, when a Maryland teenager claimed Israeli citizenship in an effort to avoid a murder trial in the United States.

The case of Samuel Sheinbein came before the Israeli courts this week as Israeli officials, seeking to comply with a U.S. request for extradition, argued that despite the youth's claim, he is not an Israeli citizen.

While Sheinbein's case is extreme, his flight from U.S. prosecutors has focused some unwanted attention on Israel's extradition policy.

Like most European countries and many South American nations, Israel does not extradite its citizens. But it does allow prosecutions in its own courts for crimes committed abroad.

But the fear of prosecution at home has not stopped at least a half-dozen Israelis from fleeing the United States in recent months.

The recent trend has elicited much concern among U.S. law-enforcement personnel and prosecutors, who fear that Israeli criminals will use the Jewish state as a refuge.

After a Miami couple jumped bond in late December to avoid a trial on charges they were involved with a multimillion-dollar money-laundering scheme, the local prosecutor told reporters that he is afraid Israelis will "abuse that protection in Israel" by using the Jewish state as a "safe haven."

Prosecutors say the Israelis are gambling that U.S. law-enforcement officials will not have the resources or motivation to pursue cases in Israel.

Prosecutors are quick to point out that many Israelis accused of crimes in the United States do not flee. But a State Department official said local district attorneys have contacted its legal department to discuss the problem.

There is hardly an "epidemic," this official said, but it is "on our radar screen."

The case of the 17-year-old Sheinbein has been the most visible one in recent months.

The Maryland teenager fled to Israel days after police say he murdered and dismembered his friend Alfredo Enrique Tello, 19, in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Sheinbein, who had never before claimed Israeli citizenship, contended that his father's status as an Israeli extends to him.

Israeli officials say otherwise. While they have not questioned the elder Sheinbein's citizenship, Israeli officials, including the attorney general, say the youth is not an Israeli because his father, born in prestate Palestine, left the country at a young age.

But Sheinbein's attorney argued in Jerusalem District Court on Sunday that Sheinbein is an Israeli citizen.

On Wednesday, Judge Moshe Ravid proposed a compromise, suggesting that Sheinbein voluntarily return to the United States to stand trial, and, if convicted, be permitted to serve out his sentence in Israel.

The compromise, if accepted by the defense and prosecution in the case, would sidestep the U.S. extradition request.

The youth's lawyer, David Libai, said the compromise was reasonable, "and worthy of favorable consideration."

The prosecution requested time to study it. Both sides are to convey their response on Monday.

Until 1977, there was an extradition treaty between the United States and Israel. But an Israeli law, passed in 1977 and intended to protect Israelis from legal actions abroad motivated by anti-Semitism, superseded that treaty, according to an Israeli official in Washington.

Since then, the Israeli law barring extradition of its citizens has come under fire in the United States.

The Sheinbein case reopened the issue, resulting in congressional pressure not only to extradite Sheinbein, but also to change the law to prevent similar situations in the future.

Israeli officials are quick to point out that Sheinbein will face prosecution in any event. Israel has vowed to prosecute him in the Jewish state if the courts rule that Sheinbein cannot be extradited.

Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Washington also have gone to great lengths to explain that their justice system — including its extradition policy and the option of domestic prosecution — is far from unique.

Nonetheless, the law against extradition is currently under review in the Knesset.

Since Sheinbein fled in September, at least five Israelis also have attempted to avoid prosecution:

*The Miami case of alleged money laundering involved three Israelis — Yehuda and Kineret Kashti, and Danny Fisher. They all had surrendered their passports to the courts, but somehow were able to take an El Al flight to Israel.

Prosecutors had hoped to link the defendants with an Israeli mob scheme to cooperate with Colombian cocaine cartels.

*In New York, a Brooklyn couple, Dov and Ayala Engel, fled to Israel after banking investigators accused them of committing fraud in securing millions of dollars in loans. The FBI has now joined the investigation.

Although the status of those cases in Israel is not clear, Israeli officials cite a 1987 murder case as evidence that Sheinbein, and any others who flee, will not escape prosecution in Israel.

Jack and Carmen Hively were murdered in 1987 in California by two Israeli hit men hired by the family's son-in-law.

California prosecutors traveled to Israel to work with Israeli prosecutors in Israeli courts to convict Nadav Nackan and Yair Orr for the Hively murders after they fled to Tel Aviv. After a four-month trial in 1990, both were sentenced to life in an Israeli prison.

Nackan's sentence was eventually reduced after he cooperated with the U.S. legal team and implicated the Hively's son-in-law in the murder-for-hire scheme.

Israel has also extradited Americans who have sought safe haven in Israel if they became citizens after committing a crime abroad.

Robert and Rachel Manning were extradited to the United States after sending a fatal letter bomb to a secretary at a California computer company in 1980. They fled to the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba and claimed Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which grants such status to all Jews.

After losing a well-publicized, two-year fight against extradition, Robert Manning was convicted in a U.S. court and sentenced to life imprisonment in February 1994.

His wife was in an Israeli prison, having just lost her own battle against extradition, when she died of a heart attack in March 1994.

Also extradited because he was not an Israeli citizen at the time he committed a crime was Eddie Antar, better known as "Crazy Eddie," the electronics giant who fled to Israel in the 1980s to avoid charges of U.S. tax evasion.