A former Israeli minister charged with spying for Iran attended an Israeli embassy event in Nigeria marking Israel’s 70th Independence Day days before his arrest and was known to be acquainted with the ambassador, according to a report Tuesday that shed fresh light on access the disgraced former politician may have maintained in Israel’s diplomatic circles.
Gonen Segev, arrested last month and extradited to Israel, has been charged with knowingly passing information to Iran about locations of security centers and the country’s energy industry, among other espionage activities on behalf of Israel’s foremost enemy.
Since the case came to light Monday, many have questioned how much sensitive and relevant information was available to the former energy minister. Segev served in the government over 20 years ago and has been living in Nigeria since being released from prison on a drug smuggling rap in 2007.
According to reports Monday and Tuesday, Segev maintained close contacts with the Jewish and Israeli expat communities in Abuja through his work as a doctor, despite the revocation of his Israeli medical license.
Segev, who the Shin Bet says was working as a spy up until his arrest in mid-May, attended an event at an Abuja hotel hosted by the Israeli embassy on May 10 to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, organized by ambassador Guy Feldman, according to the Walla news site.
One source, familiar with Segev in Nigeria, said he was occasionally seen in the company of Feldman. Several sources said he was the embassy doctor, a claim denied by the embassy itself, though the mission admitted that some of its staff were treated at the Step In Clinic Medical Center he opened.
In one case Segev was reportedly thanked by the Foreign Ministry’s security division for saving the life of the embassy’s head of security.
“Your sensitivity and efficient handling made the difference, and helped the patient, his family and his supervisors in Israel to cope with the complex situation we all encountered,” according to a copy of the English letter published by Walla news.
Interviewed on Channel 10 on Tuesday night, an Israeli businessman in Nigeria, Eyal Masika, who runs a firm called EMI Systems, also said Segev had “saved the life” of the embassy official. Masika said Segev treated lots of foreign diplomats.
Before opening the medical clinic, Segev worked for Ashtrom, a major Israeli construction company which has projects in Nigeria, but clashed with managers in the company, even filing complaints against them with local police in which he claimed they had threatened his life, Walla reported.
He eventually left under bad terms, and opened the clinic. He worked in Nigeria, at least some of the time, under the name Gonen Wundermann — his mother’s maiden name — Channel 10 reported, showing a clip of him being interviewed on Nigerian TV under that name and discussing malaria.
Segev told investigators that he was initially called to the Iranian embassy for his medical services and that is where his foray into espionage began, Channel 10 said.
Citing an unnamed source, the report said Segev would often travel to Europe claiming he was buying medical supplies, journeys which may have been a cover for meeting his Iranian handlers.
The Channel 10 report said his Iranian handlers discussed with Segev the pay slips of Mossad and Shin Bet officers, and were also interested in their health insurance arrangements. It said a gag order prevented further explanation for this.
According to the Shin Bet, Segev, whose former ministerial portfolio included energy and infrastructure, was knowingly in contact with Iranian intelligence officials since 2012, making first contact with them at Iran’s embassy in Nigeria.
He also tried to make direct connections between his Israeli contacts and Iranian handlers, presenting the spies as business people, the agency said.
Hadashot news television reported that most of the businessmen Segev tried to connect with Iranian spies were uninterested in his advances, but one became suspicious of his activities and informed Israeli authorities, an action that eventually led to Segev’s arrest.
Segev has reportedly told investigators his motive all along was to set himself up as a double agent in order to rehabilitate his image, which was badly tarnished by the drug smuggling conviction.
According to Hadashot, he claimed he informed a senior defense official of his contacts with the Iranians at the very start of his interactions with the Iranians, with the expectation he would be used as a double agent, but the orders never came.
Segev’s lawyers have not denied wrongdoing but only said that parts of the case that remain sealed tell a different story than the one described by the Shin Bet.
Channel 10 television news reported Tuesday that among those expected testify against Segev are former senior officials in the IDF and a senior aide to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, under whom Segev served as a minister in 1995.
According to the station, suspicions were raised over a year ago, and Segev was likely under observation by Israeli security services ever since.
Reports have indicated that Segev used a German diplomatic passport — obtained by his marriage to a German diplomat — to visit Iran, a country where Israelis are not permitted entry.
Sources told Walla that Segev would drive around Nigeria in car fitted with German embassy diplomatic plates. His marriage to the German diplomat has since ended.
In mid-May, Segev traveled from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea where he was arrested by local police and sent back to Israel, the Shin Bet said Monday.
Segev, who reportedly was being held in a Shin Bet facility, was moved Tuesday to Gilboa Prison in northern Israel, where he was said to be in good spirits and good health.
Media reports assessed that Segev’s incarceration in the Gilboa prison in a regular prison wing may point to him not having had any sensitive information to pass on to the Iranians.
Nonetheless, a Justice Ministry official confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday that under Israeli law, prosecutors can seek the death penalty for treason.