Chasidic sect leader returns to prison after arrest on fraud and money laundering charges

Rabbi Eliezer Berland was detained in an early-morning raid on his Jerusalem home


Eliezer Berland, the 82-year-old leader of the Shuvu Banim sect of Breslav Chasidim, is back in prison after being arrested as a suspect in multiple charges of fraud and money-laundering.

The rabbi was arrested in a dramatic police operation in the early hours of Sunday morning at his home in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighbourhood.

The investigators who arrived to search his home and Shuvu Banim’s offices were attacked by dozens of his followers, who threw stones at the police. They responded with stun-grenades.

Two police officers were lightly wounded. Five other suspects, including relatives and senior figures in Shuvu Banim, were arrested as well.

Rabbi Berland was released from prison only three years ago after an 18-month sentence for indecent acts and sexual assault was cut short because he has cancer.

The allegations against him — of sexually assaulting the wives of his followers — had split Shuvu Banim and caused some rabbis to speak out against him, however upon release, he returned to his leadership position and hundreds continued to believe in his powers.

Among them were terminally ill patients and their families, who were prepared to pay thousands of shekels to the rabbi for blessings and promises to heal them and guarantee they would live beyond 100 years.

This “blessings industry” was exposed in a number of media investigations in recent years but the police and district prosecutor were reluctant to act quickly — for a number of reasons.

The previous investigation against Rabbi Berland had cost millions and was almost abandoned because he fled from justice and spent three years in Morocco, Zimbabwe, the Netherland and South Africa until he was finally extradited.

In addition, the new charges of fraud against the rabbi are going to be very difficult to prosecute because many prominent rabbis accept donations in return for blessings. Rabbi Berland’s defence lawyers are already claiming that their client is no different and is being unfairly targeted.

To bolster their case and ensure they would be able to convince a judge that Rabbi Berland’s arrest was warranted, the investigators painstakingly assembled no fewer than 22 separate complaints from individuals who reported they had been preyed upon and taken advantage by him and his followers.

Together with the tax authority’s investigators, they also followed the money: the case being assembled includes detailed allegations of money-laundering of at least 50 million shekels (£11.3 million), including donations of cheques that were converted in Jerusalem currency-exchange offices and deposited in the bank accounts of Berland family members instead of Shuvu Banim’s official account.

Despite his shaky health, Rabbi Berland’s arrest was this week extended by five days. The shock waves are being felt across the Charedi community as fears grow that other rabbis could come under similar scrutiny.

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