Zimbabwe sanctions plot involves a well-connected black nationalist group founded in Chicago

August 7, 2013

By Aurora Aguilar and the Associated Press

(Flickr/Emily Meeks)
Prince Ben Israel, accused of lobbying lawmakers to oppose sanctions against Zimbabwe in exchange for money, owned Soul Vegetarian East Restaurant in Chicago.

The Chicago founder of a well-connected group of black nationalists is accused of trying to persuade lawmakers to oppose sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Federal prosecutors announced charges Tuesday against Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 72, and C. Gregory Turner, 71.

They are accused of illegally lobbying U.S. lawmakers, including four from Illinois, to lift sanctions against longtime Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and members of his regime in exchange for a promise of $3.4 million.

The charges were unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

The complaint says the men met with Mugabe, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gov. Gideon Gono and other officials "multiple times" in the U.S. and Africa, and allegedly agreed to lobby U.S. federal and state officials on Zimbabwe's behalf in exchange for the promised payments, which the defendants apparently weren't able to collect in full.

No lawmakers have been accused of wrongdoing, although the investigation is ongoing, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago said in a news release. It's not illegal for public officials to meet with sanctioned Zimbabweans, but individuals cannot provide lobbying services to those subjected to U.S. sanctions, prosecutors said.

Mugabe's government has been under sanctions since 2003 for alleged democratic violations.

Ben Israel appeared in a federal courtroom in Chicago Tuesday, where the terms of his bond were changed to require him to remain in contact with the court's pretrial services department. His wife, Hattie Brown, also appeared in court, promising U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlander Keys that she would turn in her husband if he attempts to flee.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The violation carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Ben Israel's attorney, Viviana Ramirez, said Tuesday that it's too early to address the merits of the case. Turner, a Chicagoan, is believed to be currently living in Israel. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Ben Israel founded the group the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. The group believes that African Americans descend from Israelites, that Israel is part of Northeastern Africa and that one day they will return to the Holy Land. They are influenced by black civil rights leaders and writers and consider themselves to be nationalists.

They maintain a vegan diet and are known to own a chain of vegan or vegetarian restaurants throughout the country.

Ben Israel owned Soul Vegetarian restaurant on Chicago’s South Side.

Israel, previously known as Ben Carter was a factory worker from Chicago. He claimed that the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision and told him to lead African Americans back to the promised land. Carter changed his name to Ben Ammi Israel and founded the Chicago chapter of the African Hebrew Israelites.

Reporter Benyamin Cohen wrote extensively about the group and was able to research an outpost in Atlanta, Georgia.

He said the group was cagey. It took him several months to get a response to his request to interview anyone from the group.

“Then one day, I got a call. It was almost like getting a call from the White House. I got a call from a secretary who said ‘The Prince is on the phone, he will speak to you now.’” Cohen recalled.

Cohen met Israel shortly thereafter when Israel traveled to Atlanta for a fundraising event. He recalled sitting next Prince Israel and another man who referred to himself as Prince Asiel, the group’s second in command. In the 1980’s, Asiel was found guilty of selling stolen airline tickets and using fraudulent credit cards. The convictions were overturned and Asiel pleaded to a lesser charge.

At their meeting, Cohen, Asiel and Israel drove off in the backseat of a brand new Cadillac. Their conversation covered personal and professional topics. Asiel admitted to having four wives.  

“My impression was that he was a very good politician, for better or worse. He’s a very gregarious people people, always looking you in the eye and smiling and making a joke, but I somehow got the feeling that was kind of a facade and that there was much more to him that meets the eye,” Cohen said.

Throughout his research, Cohen learned that Black Hebrews owned what Cohen called “front operations.” The place he visited had a block’s worth of retails shops that included barber shops, restaurants, bookshops all owned by Black Hebrews. Cohen said he believed the group used those operations to fund their organization.

“But perhaps that wasn’t enough,” Cohen said, “you have a people at the top who are very powerful who are trying to wield that power, there was a lot of shady activity, a lot of mob like activity, credit card fraud, passport fraud and even discussions of murder.”

Cohen said he was not surprised to hear about the recent federal charges against Israel.

According to the federal complaint, Ben Israel and Turner began talking with Mugabe and other Zimbabwe leaders in early November 2008 regarding the influence they could exert to lift the sanctions originally imposed by President George W. Bush.

The defendants allegedly discussed with Mugabe, Gono and others their ties to several public officials who supposedly had close connections to then-President-elect Barack Obama.

The complaint states that Ben Israel and Turner engaged in public relations, political consulting and lobbying efforts and had a Nov. 26, 2008, "Consulting Agreement" that called for an initial payment of $90,000 and three subsequent equal installments of $1,105,000.

The defendants allegedly arranged for Ben Israel to travel to South Africa with two Illinois lawmakers — referred to as "Illinois State Senator A" and "Illinois State Representative A" in the complaint — in early December 2008. Travel records show the two lawmakers traveled to Israel, but did not return as scheduled and extended their overseas stay, the complaint states.

Three days after the lawmakers' return in mid-December, a scheduler for President-elect Obama's transition team sent an email to another transition team member stating that State Representative A "wants a phone call from (transition team officials) regarding a meeting he had last week in Zimbabwe. I am not sure who to pass this on to but it's the second time they have called."

The transition team forwarded the email to the FBI based on its concerns that the state representative may have violated sanctions by traveling to Zimbabwe, according to the complaint.

Obama has decided each year of his presidency to keep the Zimbabwe sanctions in place, most recently in March.

Mugabe, 89, has been president of Zimbabwe for 33 years. He was re-elected by a wide margin last week, although his political opponents say voting wasn't free or fair and was marred by widespread irregularities.