Thursday, July 09, 2015
A rabbi and leader of a conservative Jewish movement has gone on the run in the Netherlands to avoid extradition to Israel over accusations of sexual assault.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland stands accused of sexually assaulting four female followers and a 15-year-old girl and was arrested on arrival at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam last September. Berland, who is the founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem and member of the conservative Breslov Hasidic sect, had previously evaded capture in Switzerland, Morocco, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The rabbi, 78, denies the charges, saying he is too unwell to be physically capable of committing such acts. "I feel nothing. There are no sexual feelings anymore. For 20 years already," Berland told the daily Dutch paper De Volksrant. "Sex? No, no, no. I had surgery on my prostate. All lust is gone. I never touched those women."
A Dutch court released Berland, who has become known as the 'sex rabbi' in the Dutch media, on condition of a weekly check-in with Amsterdam police, but on Tuesday afternoon he failed to attend and has not been seen since. Several hundred of the rabbi's followers were last seen boarding busses bound for Ukraine.
The Dutch Supreme Court voted to grant the rabbi's extradition to Israel last Thursday, after examining treaty agreements and laws in the prosecuting country. The Dutch Minister of Justice had yet to make the final decision regarding extradition.
The rabbi has said Israel has no legal right to extradite him because the alleged offences occurred in Palestinian territory, and that he is not an Israeli citizen, according to AFP. Berland is currently traveling without a passport, as he was required to turn it over to Dutch authorities as part of his conditional release. Local police are investigating his disappearance and working to determine if he has left the country.
The police are searching for the missing Berland in areas he is known to frequent in the Netherlands. This includes the BreeBronne holiday park in the Maasbree region near the border with Germany. Dozens of his devotees had taken up residence on the campsite after following the rabbi from South Africa.
An employee at BreeBronne told Newsweek the members of the Shuvu Bonim who were living in the park since last autumn boarded five busses headed for Ukraine on Tuesday, to the relief of the managers of the campsite who had instigated legal proceedings to evict them after they refused to leave.
Berland has amassed hundreds of devoted followers since founding Shuvu Bonim in 1978. The Hasidic educational organization is focused on close-readings of the Torah and bringing the lives of participants closer to the 'true tzadik', righteous Jewish biblical figures and spiritual masters.
Dutch attorney Henri Tillard appealed the court's decision to allow a conditional release, seeing Berlander as a flight risk. "Sometimes someone is conditionally released in extradition cases when they have bindings with our society," he told Newsweek. "A job, a wife, kids, then he has something to lose when he goes away. But he was just someone passing by."
Tillard said the minister was waiting to see results of a medical examination before ruling on the case. "The minister decided with the advice of the court judges that Berland had to be examined medically to see if he is healthy enough to be put in jail for a length of time and transport him to Israel. This is because of his age and all kinds of medical reports the lawyer gave to the court."
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