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Israeli held in Madagascar for trying to smuggle out rare tortoises

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has tried to get his conditions of detention improved.

Rare Mexican box turtles seized at the Memphis Port of Entry in Memphis, Tenn, May 18, 2021. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rare Mexican box turtles seized at the Memphis Port of Entry in Memphis, Tenn, May 18, 2021. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An Israeli citizen has been held for weeks in the African island nation of Madagascar after being caught attempting to smuggle tortoises out of the country.

The 39-year-old man from Beitar Illit, south of Jerusalem, was arrested a month-and-a-half ago at the airport after 59 rare tortoises were found in his possession. It is illegal to take the animals and according to Ynet, the prosecution wants him sentenced to 10 years in prison with a fine of $100,000. The trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 11.

The defendant claims that he was not aware that it was an illegal act. He attempted to transport the radiated and spider tortoises to Israel via Bangkok, Thailand. The animals were found in his suitcase before he boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight with a connection in Addis Ababa.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has tried to intervene in his detention, which he described to his attorney Mordechai Tzivin as being conducted under terrible conditions. He has been transferred four times.

“Save me, what’s happening here is unbelievable. I am constantly cornered, they took my clothes, and I have nothing to eat. I won’t last here,” the man said in a recent phone call to Tzivin, according to Ynet.

“I sleep in a crowded room with 150 people, each of us having little space. It’s rough here; I feel threatened as anyone can harm me. Just last week someone tried to touch me, and when I protested, he hit me twice. The nights feel neverending and I long for morning to come. I gave the jailer my food to get my tefillin, but then another person asked for money. When I refused, he punched me in the eye and took my tefillin away.”

The defendant pays $200 a week for kosher food but says that other inmates frequently steal it.

He says he is a plumber by trade and is trying to raise $270,000 to cover his legal fees and other expenses via crowdfunding.

“My client is an ordinary citizen with a clean record. He was unaware that taking tortoises out of Madagascar was prohibited and he made no attempt to conceal them. It is reasonable to assume that an average person, especially a foreigner, would not have regarded this as a criminal act,” Tzivin said.

“The conditions in the prison, considered one of the harshest in the world, are tremendously challenging for him both physically and mentally. I sincerely hope that law enforcement authorities in Madagascar will soon recognize my client’s innocence, putting an end to the tremendous suffering he is enduring.”

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