Philippines reportedly lets Israelis go after massive cybercrime sting

After publicly arresting hundreds in huge bust, prosecutor general said to find 8 Israeli suspects hadn’t worked for the company in question when crimes were committed

In this photo provided by the Philippine National Police, SAF (Special Action Force) members escort Israeli nationals following a raid at Clark Freeport Zone, Pampanga province, June 7, 2018, in Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. (Philippine National Police via AP)
In this photo provided by the Philippine National Police, SAF (Special Action Force) members escort Israeli nationals following a raid at Clark Freeport Zone, Pampanga province, June 7, 2018, in Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. (Philippine National Police via AP)

Authorities in the Philippines on Thursday released eight Israelis who were arrested last week for involvement in an online financial fraud, after the country’s prosecutor general reportedly ruled that they had nothing to do with the crimes they were accused of, according to a report on Israel’s Ynet news site which The Times of Israel was unable to independently verify.

Last week, Philippine police said they had arrested nearly 500 people — including the eight Israeli nationals — in one of the country’s biggest anti-cybercrime busts in years, alleging that they were involved in an international scam that victimized people overseas, including in Australia and South Africa.

But in a complete U-turn, Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan Jr. reportedly ruled that the Israeli suspects had not worked at the investment firm International Branding Development Marketing, Inc., known as IBD, when the company had  allegedly committed the fraud against the complainants, and found that they hadn’t even been in the Philippines at the time, Ynet reported.

The Times of Israel asked a Ynet reporter to see the Philippine Justice Ministry document in question, but he refused to share it because, he said, he had received it from the lawyer of those arrested on condition that he share only some, but not all of its contents.

According to The Times of Israel’s research, Philippine labor ministry documents show that all but two of the detainees did in fact work at IBD Marketing Inc. a company which, according to Ynet’s own account, is still under investigation. However, Ynet claims that the Philippine Justice Ministry document, which it refuses to allow other reporters to see, states that the Israeli detainees did not work at IBD Marketing at the time of the alleged fraud perpetrated against several alleged victims. The Times of Israel also requested the documents from the Philippine Justice Ministry but received no response. The Times of Israel was unable to independently verify whether Ynet’s reporting or interpretation of the Philippine document is correct.

Catalan ordered the Israelis released without any restrictions, and they immediately boarded a flight back to Israel, the Hebrew-language site said, without citing sources.

The report said three of Israel’s most prominent attorneys, Ronen Rosenbloom, Jacques Chen and Stav Saar, had traveled to the Philippines to offer legal aid to the suspects and helped facilitate the ruling.

The prosecutor general was reported to have criticized the suspects’ widely publicized arrest as illegal, causing an embarrassment to local police. The names on the arrest warrants didn’t match the actual identities of some of the suspects, Catalan reportedly said.

Financial payments fraud. (Illustrative: iStock)

Following the ruling, local police chief Oscar Albayalde ordered authorities to stop the practice of public arrests or perp walks, the report said.

The report was unclear on whether the other hundreds of non-Israeli suspects were similarly released, but it was widely reported several days ago that it was only the Israelis who were being held and that the other suspects had been freed.

The report quoted a response from IBD, saying the firm “welcomes the release of all its employees and managers. The decision speaks for itself and teaches us of the huge gap between the published allegations and reality.”

Last week, police said that 474 Filipino employees and the Israelis were taken into custody following the raid on three buildings in Clark Freeport, a former US Air Force base north of Manila, where the alleged online fraud was committed.

Police Chief Superintendent Marni Marcos claimed at the time that the suspects lured victims into investing in foreign stocks in a flourishing London-based company, then took their money through an online app after obtaining their bank account and credit card details.

The Israeli men were arrested “while in the act of managing, operating and manning the three target buildings” while the Filipinos were caught communicating and doing online transactions with foreign clients from Europe, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Russia, Albayalde had said in a statement.

A police video showed officers with assault rifles, backed by special forces units, barging into a vast office and repeatedly yelling “Hands up!” while ordering some of the suspects not to touch their computers. Some of the Israelis could be seen being led away in handcuffs.

Police seized evidence from the computers, alleging that it showed they were “engaged in a fraudulent online trading activity that involves millions of US dollars victimizing other foreign nationals all over the world,” Albayalde said.

Some foreign victims traveled to the Philippines and reported to the police details of the alleged fraud after obtaining information from some disgruntled syndicate members, Marcos had told reporters.

AP contributed to this report.

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