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Israeli held for weeks in Madagascar on suspicion of trying to smuggle out turtles

An Israeli citizen has been held in Madagascar for several weeks after authorities found dozens of rare turtles in his suitcase as he was heading out of the country to return home.

The man recently described to his Israeli attorney the conditions of his custody, lamenting that he “can’t survive this,” the Ynet outlet reported Wednesday.

He claims he was not aware that it was illegal to take the turtles out of Madagascar.

“Save me. It’s not normal what’s happening here,” said the man, identified in the report only by the Hebrew initial letter Resh.

“I’m constantly in a corner, they took my clothes and I have nothing to eat,” he said.

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In a phone call with attorney Mordechai Tzivin, the contents of which were shared with Ynet, the man described sharing a room with 150 other inmates with little space to sleep, and said he was the target of beatings from cellmates.

“Last week someone tried to touch me. I just wanted to tell him something, so he slapped me twice,” Resh said. “At night I say to myself, ‘When will morning come?'”

Resh related that he tried to bribe a jailer in order to be given his tefillin, phylacteries used in Jewish prayers, so that he could pray while wearing them.

“I gave the jailer here my food so that he would bring the tefillin,” Resh said. “I managed to put them on for a few minutes, then another one [jailer] came and asked me for money. I said I didn’t have anything to give him, so he punched me in the eye and took my tefillin.”

MADAGASCAR | Israeli arrested in Madagascar for smuggling 59 rare #tortoises (Radiated and Spider Tortoises) to Israel via Bangkok, Thailand. #wildlifecrime #illegalwildlifetrade

— Monitor Conservation Research Society (@MCRSociety) June 29, 2023

Resh is paying $200 a week to be provided kosher food but says when it arrives the other prisoners steal it from him.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has intervened in an effort to improve the conditions of his detention and Resh told his attorney he has been moved four times since he was arrested.

“His situation in the prison, which is considered one of the worst in the world, is unbearable, physically and mentally,” said Tzivin, who specializes in helping Israelis in legal trouble abroad. “I expect that the law enforcement agencies in Madagascar will soon come to the conclusion that my client is innocent, and thus will bring an end to the terrible suffering he is currently in.”

Resh, who claims to be a plumber by trade, is trying to raise $270,000 to cover his legal fees and other expenses using crowdfunding. Among those said to have put their names to back the funding drive are senior US figures in the Satmar Hasidic sect, rabbis, IDF reserve general Ehud Shani, who is also a former director-general of the Defense Ministry, and former Miss Israel Rana Raslan.

Removing rare turtles from Madagascar, which is home to some unique species of animals not found anywhere else in the world, is a serious crime. Each of the turtles he was found to be carrying is worth about NIS 9,000-30,000 (($2,500- $8,000) according to Ynet. The prosecution is asking that Resh be sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a $100,000 fine.

The turtles were found in Resh’s suitcase as he went through security to catch an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Madagascar to Bangkok in Thailand via a connection in Addis Ababa. From there his final destination was Israel.

During questioning Resh told investigators that he thought it was permitted to take the reptiles from Madagascar to Thailand. Tax authorities said the turtles were wrapped in cloth and were not provided with food or water. They have since been taken to a marine rescue center.

In recent months there have been a number of incidents in which suspects were caught allegedly trying to smuggle rare animals into Israel via Ben Gurion Airport.