TEL AVIV, – The arrest and imprisonment earlier this month of the head of Israel’s biggest trafficking ring of young women will deter some of those involved in sex slavery, but former victims and activists say much more needs to be done to stop the practice.
Rami Saban, who headed the largest trafficking operation discovered in Israel for years, received an 18-year jail sentence on 10 May. Saban and three partners are said to have trafficked thousands of young women from eastern Europe, although no one can provide the actual figure. Some 13 victims testified against him.
“They got rid of the plain ones and kept only the pretty and thin ones,” said T., one of those who gave evidence. “We were taken to a house somewhere, I don’t know where, and told to strip. They checked our bodies, our skin, birthmarks, scars. We were instructed about our ‘work’ here and given fake ID cards. Then they taught us a few words in Hebrew for work purposes, and took photos of us for a catalogue.”
Saban and his partners bought and sold young women from the former Soviet Union “like cattle” and ran brothels in Israel where they were forced to work every minute of their waking hours, sources said. The operation ran with hardly any interruption from 1999 to 2008.
The women were recruited mostly in Moldova and Ukraine, most on false promises of work in Israel as cleaners or carers, then they were flown to Egypt before being smuggled into Israel. Testimonies collected by NGOs working with trafficked women speak of rape and abuse by Bedouin smugglers on the journey.
Rita Chaikin, coordinator of the NGO Isha L’Isha, which supports trafficked women, said: “We applaud the police for this important operation. I hope the women involved in this case will not come to any harm. We also hope that the court will not be lenient towards the suspects and will also award compensation to these women for the suffering and damage they’ve endured.”
Saban will have to pay only 15,000 NIS (US$3,800) to each of the 13 women, but Chaikin is hopeful the sentence will deter traffickers from following in his footsteps.
A prosecution witness said they were sold to brothel owners at prices ranging from US$3,000-10,000, depending on age and appearance on arrival in Israel.
But that was the beginning of their suffering. According to some of the victims, they were mistreated at the hands of their “owners” if they refused to work, cried or got drunk. They would also work for a month with no pay until the money owed to the pimp was paid off.
“We were fined for everything,” T, another former victim, said. “If the client was unhappy for some reason, if we tried to talk him into helping us, if we got drunk, or cried or did not put on makeup or refused some sexual acts, we were fined. I was beaten by clients and by my ‘owner’. We were told that if we tried to run away, they will harm our families back home. After three months of no pay we were told we would receive 20 NIS per client (5US$), while the ‘owner’ charged the clients 250-300 NIS (US$60-75).”
T. tried to commit suicide twice and finally managed to escape. Now she lives in Maagan, a shelter for trafficked women in central Israel, where the women receive treatment and vocational training. The shelter was established in February 2004 by Israeli authorities following the annual US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report in 2003, which stated: “Israel is a destination country for trafficked persons. Women from Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the former Soviet Union are trafficked to Israel for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.”
Apart from establishing the shelter, the Israeli government also instituted a series of actions by police which made trafficking of women much harder, including special training for police officers to identify and rescue victims from brothels. But much more needs to be done.
According to the annual US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report, Israel “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Israel continued law enforcement actions against sex trafficking and continued to make strong prevention efforts.”
One trafficking survivor who resides in Israel, but did not testify in the trial, told IRIN: “I am happy at the verdict and the efforts this country is making but I still remember my clients who had no qualms about ‘buying’ my body for an hour and never questioned their doings, as if I were a piece of meat.”