Israeli charged with trafficking African migrants

DANIEL ESTRIN Associated Press Published:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- An Israeli man has been charged with participation in a human trafficking ring that captured and tortured African migrants in Egypt's neighboring Sinai desert, according to an indictment released Sunday.

The indictment said the accused -- a Bedouin from the Negev desert in southern Israel -- extorted tens of thousands of dollars from Eritrean and Sudanese migrants in Israel whose relatives were being held by smugglers in Sinai.

The charge sheet said that over the past nine months, the suspect collected ransoms of up to $40,000 each for dozens of captives held by nomadic Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai.

The Bedouin were supposed to smuggle them over the border into Israel. According to the indictment, the traffickers threatened to kill the captives or remove their kidneys for sale if their relatives in Israel didn't pay up.

Some 50,000 Africans have entered Israel in recent years, fleeing conflict and poverty in search of safety and jobs in the relatively prosperous Jewish state. They need the smugglers' help to navigate the rugged Sinai desert, reach Israel's border and sneak across.

African migrants in Israel have reported being tortured by the smugglers, despite promises to get them into Israel. Other Africans say smugglers gang-raped migrants, electrocuted them, kept them in the desert sun, deprived them of food and shackled them together.

The Sinai has become increasingly lawless since Egypt's longtime President Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year.

Israel is building an electronic barrier along the 230-kilometer (150-mile) border with Egypt to keep out militants and migrants.

For many years, smugglers ran a lucrative trade, but with Israel rushing to seal the border, smugglers are raising their prices as migrants race to reach Israel before it's too late.

Israel's Interior Ministry says between 1,500 and 2,000 Africans now enter Israel each month, most of them from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea.

Israel doesn't deport many because their countries' human rights records are poor, but most are not granted official status. Recently the government moved to deport some migrants from South Sudan because their country has achieved independence.

Critics charge that most of the migrants are not refugees; rather, economic migrants seeking better jobs than they can find at home. Many Israelis are concerned that large numbers of African migrants could dilute the Jewish character of their state.