The state prosecution has instructed police to further investigate Felix Siboni, the father of Transportation Minister Miri Regev, over suspicions that he distributed bootlegged liquor made with methanol.
In January 2019, Army Radio reported that police had recommended indicting Siboni, of Kiryat Gat, along with four other suspects, in an alleged conspiracy to manufacture and distribute bootlegged liquor.
The Times of Israel has learned that the state prosecution has sent the case back to the police, asking them for additional investigations on several issues. The prosecution has not yet made a decision whether to indict Siboni and the four other suspects.
Siboni has denied any wrongdoing.
Bootlegged liquor has caused at least 13 deaths and five cases of people going blind in Israel in recent years. Many of the victims were blue-collar Russian-speaking men over 50, who bought off-brand vodka or gin from local convenience stores.
The police investigation that led to the arrest of Regev’s father began in March 2018, when patients with seizures and severe headaches began showing up at Soroka hospital in Beersheba, according to a report in Ynet that interviewed several of the police officers involved in the investigation. By May, there had been two deaths and three cases of blindness at the hospital, all of them believed to be due to methanol poisoning.
Police interviewed the families of victims, which led them to the grocery stores where they had bought the counterfeit liquor. They then interviewed the owners of these grocery stores. Not all of them agreed to talk, but some did.
The report said police found a complaint in their computer system from January 2018 by the owner of the Gat Arak Distillery near Netanya, saying he had seen what appeared to be his vodka brand being sold in a grocery store in Ofakim for a third of its normal retail price.
“I traveled there and I bought a bottle to see what I was dealing with. “They copied our label but you could see it was fake.”
When police tested the bottles, they found them to contain a high concentration of methanol. They summoned the shop owner for questioning and she fingered Siboni as the person who had sold her the bottles.
Police arrested four other suspects at around the same time as Siboni, court records show.
These were Ofer Avichazar, 42, who allegedly sold barrels of methanol to other suspects and helped distribute the finished product to stores.
Police also arrested Yair Avraham, 41, from Beersheba, the owner of a store that sold drinks and alcoholic beverages in the city’s outdoor market. Police say they found 24 barrels of methanol in a hiding place in his home. They believe he acquired methanol from Avichazar, diluted it with water, and bottled the final product.
Another man, Moshe Biton, 57, from Netivot, was also arrested. According to police, in 2017 and 2018, Biton allegedly bought 30 tons of methanol from a company that uses it for industrial purposes. He then sold this methanol to others.
A fourth suspect was Elior Peretz, 30, who allegedly bottled the counterfeit liquor and distributed it to stores.
All four suspects denied any wrongdoing and denied that they knew the product was counterfeit. The police file on Siboni is not accessible to reporters, but the Ynet report described him as a beverage wholesaler who at one time worked with a large established producer, and who about two years ago left and started distributing brands on his own.
Siboni himself has denied any wrongdoing, acknowledging that 1,500 bottles of counterfeit liquor containing dangerous levels of methanol were found in a warehouse he owns on Moshav Ahuzam, but saying he had no idea the liquor was counterfeit, and claiming the supplier deceived him.
Most of the documents in the case are under wraps, but court filings seen by The Times of Israel indicate that in late 2018 police were still investigating whether counterfeit liquor from Siboni’s warehouse led directly to any deaths or injuries. His daughter, Regev, has stood by her father’s side, telling Channel 12 in January 2019 that “my father is an honest man. He has never been involved with illegal things.”
“Of course, it’s all over the headline’s because he’s Miri Regev’s father,” Regev said.
“They’re out to get her,” her mother added.
Regev placed fifth in the Likud primaries in February 2019, guaranteeing her a spot as a minister in the current government. On May 18, she stepped into the role of transportation minister, after years as the culture and sports minister.
Death by poisoning
In Israel, a liter bottle of a brand-name vodka, like Absolut, costs around NIS 80 ($23). For people who like to consume alcohol, but whose income is limited, there is a strong temptation to buy “cheap” liquor sold in local stores. The problem is that this cheap liquor is sometimes fake, and can be deadly. The makers of such off-brand products can add methanol, a cheap but toxic form alcohol, to the drink, as opposed to ethanol, the kind of alcohol that is considered safe.
Ethanol and methanol are indistinguishable to the person consuming them and even produce the same buzz. But 10-30 hours after ingesting methanol, a person can develop symptoms that include blurred vision, nausea, complete loss of vision and, in some cases, death.
David, from Beersheba, who was interviewed by the Kan public broadcaster in July 2019, lost his eyesight to methanol.
In 2018, he was returning home from his job in a plastics factory. When he got off the bus, he met a friend he had not seen in a long time, and they decided to sit and shoot the breeze. They bought a small bottle of vodka in the neighborhood shopping center and went to a nearby park.
“We each drank a small glass, then we parted ways,” David recounted.
A day later, he started feeling unwell. He went to the emergency room at Soroka hospital, but an hour after arriving he had lost his vision, a condition he later found out was permanent.
A representative of the Health Ministry told Kan that he estimates that there are dozens of deaths each year in Israel from counterfeit alcohol containing methanol.