When France’s state broadcaster referred to conman Gilbert Chikli as a “Tunisian Jew” last June, it was reprimanded by the media regulator.
“Your station is supposed to set an example in the fight against discrimination,” the warning notice said. “Be careful not to spread prejudice.”
But this was a case in which the chief suspect had deliberately used his Jewish identity to cover up scams.
Chikli, a French-Israeli dual national, has a previous record in this area: he was convicted in the so-called “CEO phone scam”, where he tricked people into sending company funds to various accounts, believing he was their boss. He fled to Israel in 2009 before his trial ended, and a French court jailed him in absentia for seven years in 2015.
This latest case, however, has helped cement Chikli’s notoreity: he was accused, among other things, of using a face mask and Skype video calls to impersonate France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Chikli manipulated people into transferring millions of euros to him in 2016, saying the money would be used to rescue journalists held by Isis. The Skype calls were made from Israel, but Chikli and his accomplices were caught the following year in Ukraine, where they were allegedly attempting another scam.
Records found on phones seized from members of the gang showed plans for an operation and conversations about using facemasks to defrauding people. Chikli himself was recorded admitting to a rabbi that he is guilty and that his wife destroyed all the evidence.
But when he appeared in court in France, Chikli and his suspected co-conspirator Anthony Lasarevitsch claimed they were in Ukraine to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in the city of Uman. “We are very religious,” they testified.
Alice Cherif, the prosecutor in the case, said they were driven there because they could not operate any longer in Israel, where the authorities had toughened their measures against criminal scams.
When investigators found money kept for Lasarevitsch in a Paris apartment, he claimed it came from his synagogue.
“That’s what Jews are like,” Lasarevitsch told the court. “There is solidarity among us. When my community learned that I was in jail and my wife and kids were alone, they donated tzedakah money for us.”
Yet conversations on his tapped phones showed that during his time in prison Lasarevitsch talked to his wife about hiding luxury goods.
Conmen are rarely admired in France but Gilbert Chikli was an exception — at least until this latest trial. Nicknamed the “pioneer” of the CEO scam, a movie was even made about his story five years ago.
It was why it came as no surprise to many when Chikli was named as part of a team that impersonated Mr Le Drian to seize €50 million (£43.6 million) through bank transfers.
Several of their 150 victims made recordings of their conversations with the man who called himself France’s defence minister. In one played in court, he is heard luring two 83 year-old men into giving him their money, swearing he’ll pay them back. The victims’ voices were weak and trembling; the impersonator insisted repeatedly they should make the transfers quickly.
“What they did was sordid, pathetic, deeply immoral,” said the prosecutor.
Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect, transferred some $20 million (£15.3 million). Turkish businessman Inan Kıraç lost $47 million. Both later managed to block some of the payments.
“Of course the vast majority of your victims thought your calls were a joke. You were grotesque, you did not even imitate minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and you made repeated grammatical mistakes that no one would attribute to a minister,” the prosecutor told them.
“But these two men were elderly and foreign. And they have spent their fortune on good causes. You made them believe innocent civilians would be killed if they did nothing.
“You acted in 2016 after France had been hit by terrorist attacks [claimed by Isis] and you used those tragedies to your advantage.”
Two victims who testified in court said they had given all of the funds in their company, a small boat manufacturer, to the impersonators.
“I can’t stop thinking about that man’s voice. His way of controlling my mind… I still can’t get over it,” said a woman identified only as Mrs Martin, who lost her job after the incident.
Chikli’s defence during the trial centred around the argument that he was not alone. A large number of French nationals suspected of money laundering have fled to Israel in the last 15 years, buying businesses and homes there. They have been accused of scams including selling fake advertisements and exploiting different tax regulations on carbon dioxide across the EU to steal money from the government.
Chikli’s impersonations, which turned him into a local celebrity, was the latest attempt at fraud — and that turned out to be a key argument for his defence.
“My client is far from the only crook. He is being falsely accused,” Chikli’s lawyer told the court, adding that other suspects had been arrested in connection to impersonating the defence minister.
But the French-Israeli nationals he accused were cleared because their voices failed to match any of the ones recorded by victims.
Both Chikli and Lasarevitsch refused to allow experts to analyse their voices. French courts do not treat positive identification in a voice recording as evidence in the same way as a DNA match, but the recordings did sound remarkably similar to the suspects’ voices.
At one stage during the trial, which ended last month, Chikli even addressed the public gallery and asked if they identified his voice in the recordings. The room, filled with his family and friends, replied without hesitation: “Not at all!”
But on Wednesday the judges disagreed and convicted the gang. Chikil was jailed him for 11 years and fined €2 million (£1.75 million); for Lasarevitsch, it was seven years and fined €1 million.
Five other accomplices, who created secure web addresses and bank accounts, carried illegal documents, searched for masks and hid money in their homes, also received jail terms.