Israeli businessman Menashe Levy, whose company had been working in Ethiopia for years but who was arrested and held in wretched conditions since 2015 on questionable charges, was finally released last month and returned to Israel on July 4.
Levy endured a Kafka-esque criminal process in 2015, when he was imprisoned in abject conditions in the east African country, while the assets of his company vanished without trace. He had been caught in a legal morass seemingly without end until his liberation on June 22.
Levy suffered mistreatment and violent assault during his incarceration without ever being convicted, before he finally regained his freedom thanks to the efforts of Aleph, a Jewish activist organization that supports prisoners, assisted by attorney and author Alan Dershowitz, and eventually the prime minister of Israel.
Levy began working in Ethiopia in 2009, building infrastructure and transportation networks as he had previously done in Israel.
By 2015 his firm, Tidhar Excavation & Earth Moving Ltd., was employing some 6,500 workers in Ethiopia, with gross annual revenues in the millions of dollars.
One major project in which Levy’s company was involved was a road construction project in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, an undertaking begun in 2013 in collaboration with the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and the city’s Roads Authority.
Suddenly, however, the General Audit office under authority of the Ethiopian government – akin to a state comptroller – announced an investigation into Levy and Tidhar.
According to Levy, the investigator eventually conveyed to him that if he paid her a significant sum in bribes, she would drop the investigation. But he refused, a decision he says landed him in prison.
He was charged with tax evasion to the tune of $2 million, hit with an additional $2 million fine, and also charged with laundering the money he withheld in taxes and with bribing tax officials.
Upon his arrest, Levy was taken in Addis to the Maekelawi detention center – usually reserved for political prisoners – that has been specifically cited by human rights groups for the abuse, beatings and torture that took place there. It was closed down last year.
“This prison was simply awful,” Levy told The Jerusalem Post during an interview earlier this week. “The room I was in was the size of 10 mattresses. Thirty-five people were kept in this room with one small grate for air close to the ceiling. It was full of ticks, cockroaches, mosquitoes and insects of every kind, and I said to myself every night: ‘Please G-d let them take just half a liter [of blood] tonight.’”
Levy said that detainees had to be in this room from five o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock in the morning, and only allowed to go out during the day into a small confined area akin to a corridor.
After 10 days of this living horror, Levy was transferred to the Kaliti federal prison, also in the capital, where conditions were somewhat better but nevertheless crammed and squalid.
He was placed in Zone 6 of the prison, which housed some 600 inmates in four large communal rooms. After four months, a prisoner of Sudanese nationality was brought in and given a bed close to Levy.
As it turned out, this individual had been arrested on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Chad, during which he had physically beaten and attempted to choke and kill a Jewish Israeli passenger while shouting “Allah is great” and “kill the Jews” in Arabic.
The incident was widely reported in the media.
Shortly after arriving in Kaliti’s Zone 6, the same man targeted Levy.
“One day I was playing backgammon in the courtyard when out of nowhere, this man comes with a two-meter wooden beam and begins to beat me over the head,” said Levy. “I had no idea what happened. I thought I had been electrocuted or something.”
The attack left Levy with brain trauma, hearing loss in one ear, and scars on his head that are still visible today.
He was transferred to a government hospital, which he described as “a torture chamber” too filthy to serve as a medical facility, but he nevertheless survived the incident and was eventually transferred back to Kaliti.
He was, however, kept in the prison hospital away from other inmates because of the apparent danger to his life.
In the meantime, criminal proceedings against Levy were under way, but he and his lawyers were never presented with the evidence against him during the entire duration of his incarceration.
Levy said the investigators charged him with having evaded taxes on some $7 million of unreported income, but that he provided evidence, supported by CCCC and the Addis Ababa City Roads Authority, that his company had fully declared all income for the relevant years.
While the legal proceedings continued against Levy, three auditors who had been arrested and charged with accepting bribes from him were acquitted and released from prison two years after his own imprisonment, although Levy’s incarceration continued.
During his imprisonment, Levy’s adult daughter suffered a stroke that caused her significant brain injury, but he was denied the right by the prison authorities to place a video call to her.
In 2018, after three years in prison, the judges presiding over the case were finally expected to give a ruling. But on the day of the judgment, they were removed from the case and replaced with new judges, who then needed to review the evidence afresh.
In the beginning of 2018, word of his plight reached the Aleph Institute.
Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who heads Aleph’s advocacy efforts from his Los Angeles office, told the Post that the organization began working on Levy’s case as soon as it became aware of his situation.
“We have provided support to thousands of families and their loved ones in prison, from all walks of life and ethnicities since Aleph was founded 39 years ago,” Boyarsky said. “Menashe suffered intensely in very difficult conditions and we had to help him.”
Aleph and its team, including leading LA attorney Gary Apfel, began to muster help from US politicians and businessman as well as Ethiopian and Israeli officials to try to bring an end to Levy’s ordeal.
Danny Grossman, former director of the American Jewish Congress in Israel who serves as Aleph’s representative in Israel as well as Alan Dershowitz’s point of contact here, helped coordinate the sensitive efforts on behalf of Levy at the highest levels in the US and Israel.
The organization worked with US Congressman Chris Smith, who helped open communications with Ethiopian officials through a well-connected Ethiopian doctor, as well as with officials in Ethiopia’s legal establishment.
Dershowitz spoke with US Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who reached out to the Ethiopian ambassador to the US, while various Israeli government officials including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel also worked to secure Levy’s release.
President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised his case with their counterparts in Ethiopia, and progress was made. But when the ruling prime minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down, the process had to be started from scratch in April with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
There was still no real end in sight for Levy, as contacts and communications dragged on without result, while the court still failed to rule on his case.
Then earlier this year, Dershowitz met with Netanyahu and discussed Levy’s unfortunate story.
Netanyahu made a call to his Ethiopian counterpart Ahmed in June, and shortly thereafter, all of the criminal charges against Levy were dropped.
A settlement was arranged whereby approximately $345,000 was paid for “damages to the government,” and Levy was eventually released from prison on June 22. He flew back to Israel on the Fourth of July.
Dershowitz, who has worked on numerous cases for Aleph, told the Post that he had immediately agreed to take the case given the legal irregularities with Levy’s trial.
“It is unthinkable for a person to be held for such a long period of time for an economic crime where they do not pose a physical danger to society, without a formal conviction,” Dershowitz said.
He said that he believes there had been antisemitic motivations in Levy’s treatment, especially the way in which a dangerous prisoner with clearly antisemitic beliefs had been placed in close proximity to him, adding that Levy’s most basic human rights had been violated.
He declined, however, to offer an opinion on whether any of the charges against Levy for tax evasion and money laundering had any basis, saying that since the alleged evidence against Levy was withheld, it was impossible to comment.
Levy himself denies all the charges, saying that he never offered bribes during his business dealings in Ethiopia.
“I always thought to myself in prison that maybe it would have been better for me to pay the bribe the General Audit investigator demanded, but I always came to the conclusion that it was better to have remained decent than to do this,” said Levy.
He gave thanks in particular to Aleph, noting that the organization had provided him with kosher food in prison, gave him emotional support by arranging frequent visits, coordinated the effort to get him released, and “diligently took care of me the whole way.”
Levy also noted that Aleph has helped him rebuild his life since arriving back in Israel.
Asked how he managed to survive his ordeal, he said that faith in G-d had helped him continue on, despite not being strictly observant of religious law.
Levy also referenced the Biblical figure of Joseph who was unjustly imprisoned, saying that of all the Jewish people’s forefathers, Joseph had demonstrated the greatest faith in G-d despite the travails of his life.
“It was such a difficult time,” Levy said. “I felt helpless and incapacitated. G-d helped me through: I believed in G-d. He was my comfort. I took it with love. I believed in G-d and my innocence. I always believed that I had done nothing, and it was just a matter of time.”