JERUSALEM (May. 6)
Four Israelis imprisoned in Egypt since February returned home Wednesday with tales of torture and humiliation during their three month’s incarceration on suspicion of spying.
Their release culminated weeks of high-level, behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity which reportedly included U.S. intervention and a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
David Ovitz, 33, a furniture dealer from Givatayim who was arrested in Cairo on Feb. 8, charged that “the entire affair was planned and timed by the Egyptian government” for the purpose of smearing Israel.
He added that his arrest was “an attempt to jeopardize Israeli-Egyptian relations.”
The others released are Fares Mussarti, 41, an Arab resident of Ramla; his son Majid, 21; and 17-year-old daughter, Faya. They claimed torture and intimidation forced them to confess to false accusations of espionage and to implicate Ovitz.
According to Ovitz, the Mussartis were forced to incriminate him because the Egyptians wanted to included an Israeli Jew in the case “to make their suspicions of the Mussartis more credible.”
Ovitz, who speaks neither Arabic nor English, occasionally had employed Fares Mussarti as an interpreter on furniture-buying trips to Egypt.
But that connection cost him dearly. “I will never talk to that family, and they know why,” he told reporters at Ben-Gurion Airport on his return from Egypt on Wednesday. He did not elaborate.
MUSSARTIS SAY THEY WERE TORTURED
He said he was treated fairly in jail but there were times he believed he was fated to stay behind bars for a very long time.
Faya Mussarti said she was tortured by electric shocks applied to her mouth and was deprived of food for days.
Her father, Fares, said he was tortured by his interrogators. He said he would be awakened at 3 a.m., tied by his arms to a pole and ordered to confess.
“I would tell them whatever they wanted. How much could I suffer?” the elder Mussarti said.
He and his daughter were accused of espionage. At first they were linked to Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Later the Egyptians insinuated a connection to other, possibly Libyan, elements, Mussarti said.
He admitted to exchanging blows with Egyptian police who raided his rented apartment in the heart of Cairo at the beginning of February.
Majid Mussarti was arrested a few days later after crossing the border from Libya. The family was first accused of traveling in Egypt with false documents, a charge to which they confessed.
Ovitz said he went to Egypt in February to bid on used furniture at the American Embassy in Cairo. He was trucking a shipment of furniture from Alexandria to Cairo when he was stopped by a police roadblock outside the Egyptian capital and arrested.
Foreign Minister David Levy’s optimistic remarks about the case Tuesday raised hopes in Israel that the prisoners would soon be released. But few expected them to return home so soon, in time for Israel Independence Day.
Ovitz was embraced at the airport by his wife Yael, 5-months pregnant, whose persistent badgering of the Israeli political establishment is credited in large measure with expediting the efforts to gain his release.
His brother, Moshe, was also helpful, as was lawyer Uri Slonim, who is experienced in negotiations concerning Israeli prisoners in Arab countries.
Their collective efforts included pressure on the political echelon and frequent contacts with Mohammed Basyouni, the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv.
According to Slonim, they also initiated contacts with New York City Councilman Noach Dear, who “pulled strings” in the U.S. administration to have American pressure exerted on the Egyptians.
Slonim credited discreet diplomatic efforts at the highest levels for the successful outcome. He said he failed to understand what motivated the Egyptians to arrest Ovitz, who had violated no Egyptian law.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz meanwhile reported from Cairo that the Egyptians are now more likely than before to carry out the death sentence pronounced on Israeli Yosef Tahan three years ago for drug dealing, a capital offense in Egypt.
Ha’aretz, quoting Israeli sources in Egypt, said the authorities could not execute local drug dealers as long as they refrained from taking the same measures against an Israeli.
Tahan’s last hope was the mufti of Egypt, the country’s highest religious authority, who has the power to commute death sentences to life imprisonment.
But the mufti has rejected an appeal to exercise his authority on Tahan’s behalf.