A Madagascar court sentenced an Israeli national to two years in prison after he was convicted of attempting to smuggle 59 rare tortoises from the country back to Israel. Additionally, the Antananarivo court fined the Israeli $400. These rare tortoises have a starting price of about 9,000 shekels (nearly $2,400) and can fetch up to 200,000 shekels (nearly $53,000) in Israel.
The Israeli was arrested in June at Antananarivo's international airport on his way to Israel via Bangkok. Authorities found in his suitcase 59 rare tortoises, which he attempted to smuggle out of the island nation located in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar’s court initially demanded a sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.
The court’s plaintiffs argued in a hearing that this is a particularly severe offense, part of a growing phenomenon of illegal trafficking in protected and endangered reptiles that are at risk of extinction, and their loss would harm nature.
The hearing took place in the absence of the Israeli national due to the fact that the distance between the prison where he has been held for the past two months and the courthouse is about three hours away. Another tortoise smuggler was present in the courtroom, lending credence to the plaintiff’s claim that smuggling the animals has become a widespread concern.
The Israeli's attorney, Mordechai Zivin, said that "A lack of budget prevented proper legal defense. Jews abroad, who usually contribute to aiding prisoners couldn’t help in this case. I hope our appeal will prove successful."
In recent weeks, the Israeli national’s family has launched a mass fundraising campaign to collect donations for his legal defense and general aid.
As part of the campaign, audio recordings of the Israeli from Madagascar were presented, where he said: "I’m the only Jew here. I’m scared. Please save me. I keep wondering when the morning will come every night. I’m here with 800 other detainees, all of them Black, Christian and Muslim. I’m the only White person, and constantly stay in the corner. They took my clothes. I can’t pray. I have nothing to eat. I can't survive this."
Attorney Mordechai Zivin said: "My client is an upstanding citizen, with no criminal record, was not aware that it’s prohibited to take tortoises from Madagascar, and didn't attempt to hide them. It can be assumed that 'the reasonable person,' certainly a non-local, wouldn't have known that he was committing an offense.”
“His situation in prison is physically and mentally unbearable. The prison is the worst one on the island and is considered one of the worst in the world. Unfortunately, tortoise smuggling and harming nature are severe offenses there," he added.
Tortoise smuggling has become a common phenomenon in Israel. There are many reptile collectors in the country, including snake enthusiasts who smuggle snakes from Jordan, and even have an established WhatsApp group.
The allure of smuggling these animals stems from the fact that the price of a tortoise in Madagascar is around 250 shekels, but they’re sold in Israel for about 9,000 shekels each. In Europe, rare tortoises of various breeds have been sold for over 50,000 euros.