For hire: elite Israeli squad who can break you out of jail
Israeli gangs break people out of jail for money
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 and assassinations.
"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 in court.
"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 in Israel."
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 jails."
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 sentences.
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 involved.
"But we don't do it to feel good," he added. "We do it because this is what we do best."
Daily Telegraph, "For hire: elite Israeli squad who can break you out of jail", 7 August 2005.
"The Insider" mailing list article, 08 August 2005.
Tags: Israeli, mercenaries, jail, break, prison, free, hire, Jewish, terrorists, Mossad, , conspiracy theories.