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Former champion athlete charged with running sex trafficking ring

Indictment says Tel Aviv-based prostitution gang was run for 5 years by Svetlana Gnezdilov, who still holds the Israeli record in the heptathlon

Israel's Svetlana Gnezdilov throws during the heptathlon javelin competition at the European Athletics Championships in Goteborg, Sweden, August 8, 2006. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Israel's Svetlana Gnezdilov throws during the heptathlon javelin competition at the European Athletics Championships in Goteborg, Sweden, August 8, 2006. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

A former internationally competitive athlete and the Israeli record-holder in heptathlon was charged Monday with running a sex trafficking ring that allegedly brought women from abroad to Israel for prostitution.

Svetlana Gnezdilov, 51, who represented the Jewish state in international athletics championships in various sports, was arrested in the case three weeks ago along with her husband and several others.

Her name had been barred from publication until Monday, when the charges were filed. Reports about the indictment indicated that Gnezdilov was the only suspect being charged.

According to the indictment, Gnezdilov managed the trafficking ring for five years in a series of apartments in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, under the guise of offering massage services.

She employed women from Israel and from abroad to provide sex services, the indictment said. For any woman brought to Israel to be a prostitute, Gnezdilov would pay a commission of NIS 1,000 ($290) to the recruiter.

The chain of brothels operated methodically and under strict rules, the indictment said. On each shift, a prostitute served between one and 20 customers, while each shift was in a different apartment.

When clients gave tips for the service, Gnezdilov would claim a bigger share than the sex worker, the prosecution said.

Gnezdilov is said to have been the manager of the trafficking ring, responsible for locating and renting the apartments that served as brothels, recruiting the women abroad through online ads, meeting them and persuading them to become prostitutes.

She allegedly instructed them how to avoid raising authorities’ suspicion by using false names and cover stories and how to behave if cops showed up.

Illustrative photo of a prostitute in Tel Aviv (Flash90)

Gnezdilov was originally indicted in 2017 over managing the trafficking ring, but the charges were dropped last January after prosecutors deemed the evidence in the case insufficient. Now, apparently, enough additional evidence has been gathered.

Gnezdilov denied the charges at a remand hearing Monday.

“Brothels are not my thing at all,” she said. “My world has been turned upside down. I don’t know how this happened to me.”

Addressing the judge, she said: “I ask you to show consideration and see I’m against these things. All these charges are not me.”

Gnezdilov was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel in 1996, at the age of 27. Her heptathlon Israeli record from 2003 still holds, as does her record from the same year in 4X400 meter relay along with three other runners.

She also broke the Israeli long jump record in 2004, a record that was broken in 2014 by Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko.

Gnezdilov competed in various other sports in athletics, but never made it to the Olympics.

Pimping, sex trafficking, and running a brothel are punishable under existing Israeli law. In December 2018 the Knesset approved a law that also punishes johns caught hiring sex workers.

The law criminalizes procuring the services of a prostitute, as well as presence in a location chiefly used for prostitution, such as a brothel. First-time offenders are fined NIS 2,000 ($530), with the sum doubled for repeat offenses within three years.

In 2016, the Welfare Ministry estimated there were 11,420-12,730 sex workers driving the country’s NIS 1.2 billion ($318 million) industry. According to that report, 71 percent of prostitutes said they began sex work out of financial desperation, and 76% said they would leave the industry if they could.

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