Weed kingpin lands in Israel after failed Ukraine escape

Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver extradited after attempt to flee goes up in smoke; will face charges related to founding and running marijuana marketplace

Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver speaks in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster aired on July 20, 2019, from where he was being held under arrest in Ukraine. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver speaks in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster aired on July 20, 2019, from where he was being held under arrest in Ukraine. (Screen capture: YouTube)

An Israeli man accused of running a massive marijuana marketplace was brought back to Israel from Ukraine early Sunday, a day after he was caught following a brief escape from police custody during an earlier extradition attempt.

Amos Dov Silver flashed a “V” victory sign as he walked onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport at around 5 a.m. surrounded by Israeli police, the Ynet news site reported.

He was immediately taken into custody upon landing.

He is slated to face charges related to his role in founding and running Telegrass, a sprawling forum that used the Telegram messaging app to connect drug dealers and consumers.

The site was shut down in March and dozens of people connected to it, including Silver, were arrested in Israel, the US, Ukraine and Germany, authorities said.

On Friday, Silver was taken to Kiev’s Boryspil airport to be flown to Israel after he had exhausted appeals to stop his extradition when he managed to slip away from his guards and escape.

Following a day-long manhunt, Israeli and Ukrainian police announced Saturday he had been nabbed and the extradition would go ahead.

According to Israeli police, Silver was caught in Uman, a city south of Kiev popular among Jewish pilgrims as the burial place of the founder of the Breslov Hasidic dynasty.

According to Channel 12 news, Silver was planning on fleeing to the US and intended to spend two days in Uman before crossing into Moldova on Sunday.

His lawyer told the channel Saturday that he was a US citizen. The attorney, Uri Corb, also alleged that his client had been beaten by police from Ukraine’s SBU security service, and he was appealing for help from Washington and Jerusalem.

In a statement announcing Silver’s capture, the SBU said it had detained three of its own employees suspected of helping Silver escape.

The Kiev prosecutor’s office said that he was at the airport bound for Israel on Thursday when he escaped from his security service guards and “disappeared.”

According to the Haaretz daily, no Israeli officer had been able to fly to Kiev on Friday to escort Silver back and he was able to flee while his Ukrainian guards attempted to finalize travel arrangements.

The police said Saturday they were dispatching a delegation to Ukraine to “coordinate the continuation of activities and of the extradition process.”

Posted by Amos Dov Silver on Tuesday, April 9, 2019

In April, prosecutors filed indictments against 27 people, including Silver, suspected of involvement in Telegrass. The charges include drug trafficking, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of drugs other than for personal consumption, obstruction of justice, money laundering and tax evasion.

While the drug most prominently sold on Telegrass was marijuana, the indictment stated that other, more serious drugs including LSD and MDMA were also marketed.

The State Prosecutor’s Office estimated that hundreds of millions of shekels were circulated through the network over the past two years, with the suspects mediating between more than 3,000 drug sellers and some 200,000 buyers, and pocketing roughly NIS 30 million ($8.36 million) in the process.

Young Israelis protest for the legalization of marijuana outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 20, 2014. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

In the years before his arrest, Silver was an activist for cannabis legalization, including organizing The Big Bong Night in 2014 — an audacious cannabis legalization protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem.

In March, Silver wrote a letter to the Israel Police from his Ukrainian prison, saying, “You can break my spirit and maybe even destroy my soul, but you are making a terrible mistake. The distorted and bizarre picture that you are trying to paint, while violating and trampling on my basic rights in order to have me convicted of a crime I never committed, [is destined to fail].”

Israel has taken steps in recent years to make medical cannabis available and is poised to become a major exporter of the crop. Recreational use of the drug remains illegal, though the Public Security Ministry partially decriminalized it in 2017, setting fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal procedures.

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