- You won't find them listed in any telephone book. But
if you're locked up in a Third World jail, seemingly beyond help, the secret
team of Israeli soldiers-of-fortune can spring you from your cramped and
fetid cell - for a price.
- With an armoury ranging from spiked drinks and disguises
to fake passports, honeytraps and sheer brute force, the seven-strong squad
of former special forces troops will launch freelance jail-breaks across
the developing world. Assuming you can find them, they charge up to $150,000
(£85,000) to get their prize safely home.
- Although they might sound like a team dreamt up by a
Hollywood screenwriter, their existence was confirmed to The Sunday Telegraph
this week by lawyers - and by Dafna Margolin, a 46-year-old from Tel Aviv,
who was smuggled out of Cuba by the team four years ago.
- "We have rescued eight people so far," said
the commander of the group, who insisted on remaining anonymous. "Our
price is anything from $50,000 to $150,000."
- From India to Cuba and Mexico, the team specialises in
rescuing Israeli prisoners from countries where lawyers say that corruption
can hamper chances of a fair trial and prison conditions can be horrendous.
- "We have rules," said the commander. "We
only work in developing countries and we can choose the cases that we accept.
We don't want heavy drug smuggling cases - we try not to take them."
- Yet he also admitted: "We don't really ask questions.
It's the job we have and we do it."
- The unit has broken its self-imposed rule only once,
when a cousin of one of its members was locked up in Norway. Then, its
leader says, it had few scruples about storming into one of the world's
most prosperous and crime-free nations.
- "Norway was an exception," said the unit commander.
"It was family, so we had to do it."
- Those familiar with the unit say that it is called Pidyon
Shevuyim, or Redemption of the Captive, after an ancient Jewish law that
calls on Jews to free their fellows from captivity as a duty.
- While the team may be rooted in tradition, its methods
and equipment come straight from today's covert operations battlefield.
- The core group of the seven met in the army, but others
have been recruited in recent years. The team members are aged between
their late twenties and early forties.
- "These are mostly special forces guys and they think
life is the army. It's what they know, so they continue to use these Mossad-type
tactics," said an associate, referring to Israel's foreign intelligence
service, involved in countless exploits on foreign soil, including rescues
- "For most cases we spend between two and six months
on reconnaissance and preparation," said the unit commander. "We
work on two or three at a time and then take time off, sometimes a year,
as a 'cool-down' period."
- The team is reluctant to divulge details about how it
frees its clients, from whom it demands a vow of silence over the specifics
of the escape. Those who know their techniques, however, say that the mission
is often launched as a prisoner is being moved from place to place.
- "One tactic is for the prisoner to fake illness
and get moved to a hospital wing, or a clinic, which is less secure,"
said the associate. "The unit forces the vehicle transporting the
prisoner to stop and snatches the inmate.
- "Or it uses sedatives to drug police watching the
inmates at the hospital, or even girls to fool around with the guards."
- The team usually acquires its weapons locally and uses
fake passports to get its clients out of the country.
- Ms Margolin was smuggled out of Cuba in early 2001 after
disaster struck on a week-long holiday in Havana.
- In October 2000, she had been involved in a traffic accident
in eastern Cuba in which the pillion passenger on a motorcycle died. She
insists that the motorcycle swerved in front of her car and that the only
witness supported her version of events, only to testify against her later
- "The trial was a terrible ordeal. There were hundreds
of people outside and I thought I would be lynched," she said this
week. "The prosecutor asked for a five-year suspended sentence, which
meant I would have been deported, but the judge gave me three years in
jail with hard labour."
- Back in Israel, a member of Ms Margolin's family managed
to contact Pidyon Shevuyim. Two weeks before her appeal to the supreme
court and the likely start of her sentence, Ms Margolin said, the team
landed in Cuba.
- "They sent three guys for reconnaissance, following
me, tracking my movements, then four days before I was to be locked up,
they took me outside Havana and one of the men changed my looks.
- "I was very scared. They told me that sometimes
they have to sedate some of their clients because they are so nervous.
Only on the escape plane I felt really free. But in three days I was back
- Ms Margolin said: "I think it's a humanitarian thing
to spread the word about these guys. People in my situation need help and
these guys can help."
- Israel's ministry of foreign affairs however, has a less
charitable view of the unit's activities. "We demand that Israelis
abroad show the same high respect for the local laws as we expect of foreigners
here," said Mark Regev, a spokesman. "We do not support any illegal
activity abroad and I think you can say that includes breaking into foreign
- Some lawyers in Israel, however, say that the ministry
has indirectly encouraged the rescue unit through its failure to offer
robust support to Israelis in trouble abroad.
- "The foreign ministry thinks that if it exerts any
influence for an Israeli in India say, then India might have some comeback
in Israel," said Mordechai Tsivin, a lawyer who deals with many of
the estimated 560 Israelis held in foreign jails.
- "It doesn't give any help to Israeli prisoners or
their families - zero. While you can't forgive the criminal activities
of this group, it has been encouraged to exist by the failures of the state."
- Two families of Israelis serving time in foreign jails
supported his stance, telling The Sunday Telegraph that they had had almost
no help from the Israeli state in challenging what they claim are unjust
- For the team commander, however, ethical niceties are
not a concern. What matters is that the money keeps flowing and the next
operations are successful.
- "We are in the planning stage for more jobs now,"
he said. "So far they have all gone well but there are always risks
- "But we don't do it to feel good," he added.
"We do it because this is what we do best."
- © Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.