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Expelled Guatemala group is 'extremist sect'

Female Lev Tahor members
Female Lev Tahor members

The 230 Jews who were forced to leave the remote Guatemalan village of San Juan la Laguna for the capital, Guatemala City, earlier this month were members of the Charedi sect Lev Tahor, which has allegedly engaged in human trafficking and harboured sex abusers, according to search warrants issued by authorities in Quebec.

The Canadian documents detail a criminal case built against the group by Interpol and Israeli police before its members fled to Guatemala in March with its leader, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans.

The warrants, issued in January, include allegations by former Lev Tahor members - among them, Helbrans' own brother, Nathan - of physical beatings, poor hygiene, forced ingestion of drugs, under-age marriage and sexual assault.

The group has vigorously denied all the allegations.

Helbrans founded Lev Tahor in Israel in the late 1980s and ran it both there and in Brooklyn, New York - where he was convicted of kidnapping - and then for a decade near Montreal.

Canada granted him asylum in 2003 based on his stated fear of being persecuted if sent back to Israel. But in November 2013, in the midst of an investigation by youth protection officials and other authorities, the group fled Quebec for the adjacent province of Ontario, and four months later it moved to Guatemala.

Rabbi Uriel Goldman, one of Lev Tahor's leaders, insisted that his group, so strict that it refuses to recognise Israel - which it declares has no spiritual validity - had been on friendly terms with most locals in San Juan La Laguna. But one of the village elders, Miguel Vázquez Cholotio, said: "We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs."

For their part, Jewish community members claimed they had been subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

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