A well-known South Side activist and restaurateur was sentenced to seven months in prison today for violating federal law by lobbying on behalf of the violent and oppressive regime of Zimbabwe’s longtime president in spite of U.S. economic sanctions.

Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 73, whose colorful history in Chicago includes leadership of a religious sect in the 1980s, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of failing to register as an agent for a foreign government.

Ben Israel’s attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo for probation, but the judge said the seriousness of the offense warranted some prison time. Federal guidelines had called for up to 16 months behind bars.

Ben Israel must report to prison in November.

Ben Israel admitted in his guilty plea to trying to persuade U.S. government officials — including an Illinois state senator and two U.S. representatives from Chicago — to push for the lifting of the sanctions imposed in 2003 on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and other top Zimbabwean government officials.

He and co-defendant C. Gregory Turner, also of Chicago, had reached a consulting deal with the Zimbabwean officials to be paid $3.4 million for their efforts, according to Ben Israel’s plea agreement. Turner, 71, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Authorities said the discussions began in November 2008 when Ben Israel and Turner told Zimbabwean officials that they knew many politicians with close ties to President-elect Barack Obama.

The charges do not name any of the politicians, but details included in the charges made it clear that among the lawmakers the two dealt with were then-state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, as well as U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, both Chicago Democrats. None of the public officials was accused of wrongdoing.

Ben Israel and Turner were successful in arranging for the state senator and several other lawmakers to meet with Mugabe and other top Zimbabwean officials during several trips there in 2008 and 2009, according to the charges.

The two U.S. representatives participated in numerous meetings about the lobbying effort and also sponsored a failed 2010 House resolution to end the Zimbabwean sanctions. 
As an initial payment on the contract, Ben Israel in December 2008 received $90,000 in cash from a Zimbabwean official’s bank account in Botswana, according to his plea agreement.

It was not alleged Ben Israel or Turner received any other payments, and their lobbying efforts ultimately failed as Obama continued the sanctions first imposed under the previous administration.

Ben Israel gained recognition in the 1980s as a leader of the Black Hebrew Israelite sect, a Chicago-based group whose members believe they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites.

For years, his family has run the popular Soul Vegetarian restaurant on the South Side.