JERUSALEM – An Israeli wanted in Colombia for training militias that killed hundreds returned home Saturday after he was released from a Moscow jail, disappointing activists and victims who have tried for years to bring him to justice.
Yair Klein is accused of training far-right paramilitary groups in the 1980s that stole land and murdered Colombians during a decade-long reign of terror across the countryside.
Human rights activists are pleading with Israel to open an investigation into Klein's actions during that period in the hopes that he could be tried locally.
"Israel should not be a safe haven for somebody who is implicated in atrocities in Colombia," said Jose-Miguel Vivanco of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman did not return requests for comment.
Colombian officials said they would still try extradite the former Israeli military officer, who was sentenced in absentia in 2001 to almost 11 years jail. Israel, however, is not likely to agree ship off one of its citizens to trial elsewhere.
Klein appeared tired and defiant as he left the airport terminal in Israel early Saturday. He wore a khaki-colored sweater and beige pants and carried his own luggage. He told Israeli media that he missed women most of all during his stint behind bars.
At first he was hostile to the swarming reporters, then thanked them for assisting in his release. He also hinted at American and Russian conspiracies.
Klein was arrested in August 2007 as he touched down in a Moscow airport. Russia attempted to extradite him Colombia, but after years of litigation, it accepted a nonbinding ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that said Klein should not be extradited out of concerns that he wouldn't receive a fair trial.
Klein was convicted in Colombia of helping set up training camps to teach private armies working for drug lords Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha about explosives, car bombs and high-profile killings. The armies later morphed into Colombia's right-wing death squads.
Klein, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army, appeared in a 1998 video used to train far-right squads.
In 1991, he was convicted of selling arms to Colombia's illegal groups and fined $13,400 by an Israeli court. He also spent 16 months in a Sierra Leone prison in 1999 for his role in a guns for blood diamonds deal.
In an interview with Caracol television conducted in Israel and broadcast in 2007, Klein denied ever working with the cocaine cartels, but confirmed that he did instruct the far-right death squads in how to combat the leftist insurgency.
He said he was originally hired — with the Colombian Ministry of Defense's blessing — to organize security for the banana industry in the northern region of Uraba.
Many of his students went on to carry out some of Colombia's most brutal massacres.
Klein maintained, however, that "they were not trained to kill, only trained to defend themselves."
Klein said at the airport he hoped to write books that would "cause chaos" in Israel.
Ivan Cepeda, of the Bogota-based National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, described Klein's release as a painful blow.
"There are the many victims of the paramilitary groups who were trained by this man," he said. "It hurts, that after so many efforts, Yair Klein enjoys freedom."
With additional reporting by Tara Todras-Whitehill in Tel Aviv, Ian Dietch in Jerusalem, Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Murad Mirovalev in Moscow