Former minister Gonen Segev has reportedly admitted to Shin Bet investigators that he was in contact with Iranian intelligence officials, but claimed his alleged espionage on behalf of the Islamic Republic was actually an effort to help Israel.
On Monday, the Shin Bet security service announced that Segev — a former energy minister who previously served time in jail for drug smuggling — was extradited to Israel from Equatorial Guinea and charged with spying for Iran last month.
According to Hebrew-language media reports, Segev during his interrogation told investigators that he had no ideological or financial motive in helping Iran, and that he did not hand over any classified information.
The reports said that while Segev was living in Nigeria, he regularly served as the doctor for the local Jewish community and Israeli diplomats living in the capital Abuja.
Segev was lured to the Iranian embassy in 2012 under the guise of treating the children of its diplomatic staff, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported.
By going to work for the Iranians, Gonen was reportedly hoping to mislead them and ultimately restore his reputation that was tarnished by the drug bust from over a decade ago, the TV report said.
“I wanted to fool the Iranians and come back to Israel a hero,” he was quoted as saying during his interrogation.
Gonen noted to investigators that during his 2007 stint in prison for drug smuggling, he was not housed in an isolated wing like other jailed top Israeli officials with knowledge of secret information, the TV report said. He reportedly said his that being housed in the regular wing of the prison proved he never had access to sensitive material.
According to Channel 10, Segev was held in solitary confinement for nine days after he was brought to Israel last month, and was barred from contacting his attorneys during that time. He is reportedly being held in a Shin Bet facility in central Israel.
Though Israeli officials are reportedly almost certain that Gonen did not provide any sensitive material to his handlers in Tehran, law enforcement authorities are treating the unprecedented case extremely gravely.
In a statement Monday, the Shin Bet said that Segev handed over information to his handlers about Israel’s energy sector, diplomatic operations, and specific buildings.
“Segev even visited Iran twice to meet with his handlers in full knowledge that they were Iranian intelligence operatives,” the statement said. The agency said Segev met with his Iranian handlers in hotels and safe houses around the world, and used a special encrypted device to send them messages in secret.
In mid-May, Segev traveled from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea, where he was arrested by local police and sent back to Israel, the intelligence agency said.
On Friday, Segev was indicted in a Jerusalem court on charges of assisting the enemy in wartime, spying, and a number of other related crimes, but the case remained under a gag order until Monday. Some details of the case remain sealed.
His lawyers said in a statement to the Hebrew press that the full charge sheet painted a “different picture” from that which can be seen from only the parts cleared for publication.
Fall from grace
Segev, who is also a pediatrician, was elected to the Knesset in 1992 as part of Raful Eitan’s now defunct Tzomet party.
He famously split from that party in 1994 over disagreements with Eitan, and set the short-lived Yiud faction along with two other Tzomet MKs. He then joined the Rabin coalition in January 1995, and was named minister of energy and national infrastructures. His vote was critical in passing the Oslo II Accords in the Knesset later that year.
Segev quit politics after losing his seat in the 1996 elections and became a businessman, only to be arrested in 2004 for attempting to smuggle 32,000 ecstasy (MDMA) tablets from the Netherlands into Israel.
At the time of his arrest, he famously claimed that he thought the pills were M&Ms. He also illegally extended his diplomatic license and committed several offenses involving use of credit cards.
The former minister was convicted in 2005 of drug smuggling, forgery, and fraud. He received a five-year prison sentence as well as a $27,500 fine. He was released from prison in 2007, after a third of his sentence was cut, due to satisfactory behavior in jail.
However, Segev could not go back to working as a doctor, since his medical license was stripped from him shortly before his release. Segev appealed this decision to the Jerusalem District Court, but was rejected.
Immediately following his release, Segev left the country and was working as a doctor and a businessman in Nigeria.
In 2016, the Israeli Health Ministry rejected a request from Segev to reinstate his medical license in order for him to return to the country. That same year, he said he was told Hadashot news (then Channel 2) that he would remain in Nigeria until he could return to Israel with his “head held high.”