Sep 15, 2016

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that fled Canada raided by Guatemalan police over child abuse concerns

National Post

Graeme Hamilton and Peter Kuitenbrouwer

September 14, 2016


Spurred by officials in Israel, child-protection authorities in Guatemala have raided an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect whose members fled Canada in 2014 after they came under investigation.

About 200 police, crown prosecutors and representatives of the attorney general’s office executed a search warrant targeting the Lev Tahor community Tuesday, said Salvador Soto, a lawyer for the Lev Tahor community.

He said the community members responded with shock because “most of the families were asleep” when police arrived at dawn at the apartments where the Lev Tahor families live in Guatemala City’s Ninth Zone.

“They were waving around their guns, and the families were terrified,” Soto said. “They entered by force because the families wanted to keep them out.”

A statement Tuesday from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it is in close contact with Guatemalan authorities over concerns that the children of Lev Tahor members, many of them Israeli citizens, are suffering abuse.

“Testimonies that have been gathered arouse suspicion of, among other things, the marriage of minors, physical and emotional violence against community members and against minors,” ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.

“These testimonies and others raise concerns for the physical and mental safety of dozens of Israeli minors currently staying in Guatemala under the auspices of the community.”

Nahshon said the raids were “due to suspicions of serious criminal offenses, including against minors, being committed in the compound where they live.”

There were conflicting reports on whether any children had been removed from their families. The Guatemalan newspaper Hora reported that one Canadian teen had been brought to the capital from the district of Santa Rosa, but Soto said none was removed.

“The attorney general’s office was investigating whether women and children were being mistreated or whether they were being drugged,” Nahshon said. “A judge issued an order allowing the authorities to enter the homes to see whether there was any mistreatment.

“But they did not find any proof of drugging, or any abuse. They didn’t take any kids away. The kids were scared, but fine.”

The sect, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s, spent more than a decade in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., before fleeing to Chatham, Ont., in the middle of the night in 2013 as Quebec child-protection authorities prepared to intervene.

The child-protection agency alleged that children were being denied a proper education, that girls were required to wear chadors from the age of three and that marriages were arranged for girls as young as 14. After a few months in Ontario, as Canadian authorities scrutinized members’ immigration status, the group relocated to Guatemala.

They initially set up in the village of San Juan la Laguna, where, because of their dress, they became known as “los hombres de negro, ” or the men in black. Lev Tahor customs — men turned their backs to local women when doing business and the group’s women rarely left their homes — became a source of irritation, and they were forced out and moved into an empty office tower in the capital.

Oded Twik, who last year travelled to Guatemala from his home in Israel to rescue his sister and her children from Lev Tahor, criticized Canada and Israel for failing to stop Helbrans. “Canada wasn’t able to protect those children in the end,” Twik said through a translator. Now he fears that if Lev Tahor feels pressure in Guatemala, it will simply uproot and move to El Salvador or Honduras.

Soto said the raids came after the Israeli embassy told Guatemalan authorities that the Lev Tahor leaders had prevented one child, an Israeli citizen, from leaving Guatemala. “Those were lies,” he said. “It seems that child is not even in the community.”

John Babcock, a spokesman for the federal Global Affairs Department, said Canadian consular officials “are engaging with the relevant authorities in Canada and Guatemala to provide assistance” to the investigation. He said he could not provide further details to protect the privacy of people involved.

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