Two weeks ago, while all eyes were focused on the case of international arms dealer Viktor Bout, I spent about five hours at the Moscow City Court watching the appeal case of another accused arms smuggler, Yair Klein. Known as Israel's most famous arms smuggler, Klein has been fighting extradition to colombia, where he was tried in absentia in 2001 and sentenced to a 10-year prison term.
Klein was arrested in Moscow last August on an Interpol warrant as he boarded a plane to Tel Aviv. Now he stood just one court decision away from being shipped off in cuffs to Bogota, where he’d rot away in some mosquito-swarmed dungeon.
Given the international profile of the case, and the brouhaha involving Bout, there were surprisingly few reporters present at Klein’s appeal hearing. Other than a ponytailed colombian journalist and two female staffers from the colombian embassy, I had the pews all to myself as Klein was brought in to the courtroom, shackled and under guard. The Israeli’s 64 years showed in the splotches on his bald head and hands, but you would never guess his age by his muscle mass index. His solid beefy build was visible even through his baggy sweater and cargo pants. After six months in a Russian jail, he was still built to harm, and he seemed in good spirits, smiling and joking with the young female interpreter brought in at his own expense.
Klein is no Viktor Bout, but he is one of the better-known figures in the shadowy world of international arms dealers. Over the course of his career, Klein has equipped and trained some of the most notorious paramilitary outfits out there—from Nicaraguan death squads to the child armies of Sierra Leone. And he’s never been shy about it. Klein has openly explained his activities in pretty much every media format: articles, radio programs, TV interviews, documentaries, and self-made promotional videos. Klein and his merry band of Israeli mercenaries even appeared in a 1989 PBS documentary boasting of their activities in Central America, including working with the Nicaraguan Contras, a CIA creation that was known primarily for massacre-and-run operations in poor defenseless villages.
I first became aware of Klein’s case in December 2007, when I received a call from Mordechai Tzivin, Klein's Israeli lawyer, asking me to meet him at the kosher restaurant inside Moscow's Bolshaya Bronnaya synagogue. He phoned me because I occasionally write for Ma’ariv, Israel’s second-largest circulation daily, so he figured I might be useful in raising his client’s profile. I met Tzivin for dinner in a corner table, where he explained the case to me in between taking calls on his two cell phones, barking the whole time in English, Hebrew, and broken Russian, depending on which phone he was shouting into.
During our conversation, Tzivin boasted of his long and deep connections in Russia dating back to the Yeltsin years, when he managed to get a couple of Israelis off the hook for illicit diamond exports (one of them was pardoned personally by Yeltsin). He cursed the Israeli government for not doing enough to help his client. "They are abandoning a decorated war hero," Tzivin complained. "Israel never does this! There is something going on behind the scenes." He was sure that some kind of deal had been cut, something funny was going on. But what?
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Yair Klein was born in British-occupied Palestine in 1943, the son of hardcore Zionist settlers. He is a member of the Ariel Sharon Generation, a tough Jewish warrior mofo. A veteran of the IDF’s special forces, Klein fought in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and was part of the 1972 team that rescued dozens of hostages held captive in a Libyan plane at Lod airport in Tel Aviv.
Klein entered the mercenary business in the early 80s, when he founded a private security firm called Spearhead. The timing was perfect. Israel soon invaded south Lebanon and Spearhead landed its first major contract training and supplying basic army gear to the Phalangists, the notorious Lebanese Christian militia responsible for shooting up the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The attack left hundreds of Palestinians dead and tarnished Israel’s reputation around the world. According to a 2007 interview Klein gave on colombian TV, his infant firm made $2 million from that deal alone. He was off and running.