South Side religious leader pleads guilty in Mugabe scheme
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter April 11, 2014 12:56PM
Prince Asiel Ben Israel after pleading guilty in federal court Friday. | Kim Janssen/Sun-Times
Updated: May 13, 2014 6:09AM
A South Side religious leader admitted Friday that he broke the law when he agreed a $3.4 million deal to lobby Chicago politicians to lift sanctions against the regime of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 72, pleaded guilty to failing to register as an agent of the controversial Mugabe, on whose behalf he tried to enlist four Chicago lawmakers to open a “back channel” to President Barack Obama and have the sanctions overturned.
He faces up to five years behind bars but, under the terms of his plea deal with prosecutors, is free to argue for probation at a sentencing hearing later this year.
Despite his guilty plea, the sharp-dressed Ben Israel — whose family runs a well-known vegan soul food restaurant on 75th St — remained defiant later Friday, saying he’d devoted his life to “uplifting the African people” and had done nothing morally wrong.
Together with codefendant, Greg Turner, 71, who continues to maintain his innocence, Ben Israel had hoped to take advantage of the election of the U.S.’s first black president, believing Obama might consider a policy change toward Mugabe’s Southeast African regime, court papers state.
Sanctions against Mugabe, his Zanu-PF party and other leading members of his ruling elite were enacted by the Bush Administration in 2003 as punishment for Mugabe’s human rights abuses and election fraud.
But Ben Israel’s scheme never got off the ground. Before Obama was even sworn in, his staff referred the case to the FBI in December 2008 — leading to Ben Israel’s eventual indictment and guilty plea.
Though none of the Chicago politicians he and Turner allegedly approached is named in court papers or is accused of any crime, court papers make it clear that U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush were targeted by the men.
Both lawmakers cosponsored a 2010 bill that sought a review of the sanctions, which were intended to rein in the fraud, violence, intimidation and vote rigging that Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party have increasingly relied upon since they successfully drove out Zimbabwe’s white colonial minority government in 1980.
At least one of the two congressmen — it’s unclear whether it was Davis or Rush — planned to travel to Zimbabwe to meet with Mugabe in 2009, but the trip was canceled, court papers state.
The complaint against Ben Israel and Turner also says an unnamed state senator and state representative linked to the defendants went to Africa in 2008 and agreed to lobby Obama on Mugabe’s behalf.
Mugabe’s regime ultimately pulled the plug on the project after Obama renewed the sanctions multiple times, and Ben Israel and Turner were never paid, according to the complaint.
Speaking after his guilty plea Friday morning, Ben Israel, who is a leader in the Hebrew Israelite black-Jewish movement and carried a West African cane and wore a brimless hat in court, said he pleaded guilty to spare his family the ordeal of a trial.
“I believe in giving people clean water, I believe in giving people rights to live after more than 100 years of being oppressed by a foreign power, England, to their own rights to live in their own country and land, and I continue to believe that justice must be served,” he said.
Asked whether there were other benefits behind the $3.4 million deal for him, he declined to answer on the advice of his attorney, who cited his upcoming sentencing hearing.