Lev Tahor search warrant documents allege abuse, underage marriage, imprisonment

Newly released documents covering search warrants executed at Lev Tahor homes detail unproven allegations of imprisonment of young girls in the basements of homes, underage marriage and the use of violent physical discipline.

The Toronto Star/February 15, 2014

By Tim Alamenciak and Allan Woods

Allegations of sexual abuse, confinement, and beatings with crowbars, belts, whips and a coat hanger are among the claims detailed in recently released police documents connected with the ongoing investigation into the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor.

The documents, the allegations of which have not been proven in court, outline information used to obtain search warrants executed in January on properties belonging to Lev Tahor families in both Ontario and Quebec. The documents chronicle a litany of allegations that paint a picture of a community whose women and children in particular live in a tightly controlled environment with strictly enforced rules.

The heavily censored police documents recount interviews with members of the community, social workers and unnamed witnesses dating back to 2012. The names of any children mentioned are protected by a publication ban.

Several items were seized in the searches, though it is unclear exactly what was found and what specific offences were being investigated. Nachman Helbrans, the son of sect leader Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, said the allegations are untrue and the result of a campaign being waged against them by former members.

“Nothing is done by force in our community. Nothing, nothing,” said Helbrans in a phone interview with the Star. “If this is serious allegations, how come in April 2012 they didn’t come one time to my house?”

“It’s against all the way of life in Lev Tahor to use force for any small or big issue. No one dreams about using force. Based on all this I wonder what makes now to make the search warrant just after we left Quebec,” he said.

The new batch of documents adds to a slew of allegations mounting against the sect and its leaders. Court testimony delivered at a Quebec hearing that would ultimately order the removal of 14 children alleged a pattern of psychological abuse and control, poor physical and dental hygiene and a substandard education regime.

The group fled the province ahead of the order, leaving behind their homes in Sainte-Agathes-des-Monts for Chatham, Ont., prompting an Ontario court judge to review the Quebec order. He upheld the order for 13 of the 14 children.

The documents reveal that the sect has been under investigation for nearly two years, with allegations going back to May 2012.

The new documents allege that in December 2012, a 17-year-old pregnant girl, who was taken to hospital by ambulance, was sexually abused by her father and beaten by her brother, adding that she had been married off at age 15. The documents say the 17-year-old girl was “in a psychosis” and incapable of being interviewed after arriving at a children’s hospital, but her injuries were photographed. In a video interview afterwards at the hospital with investigators, the girl makes “no allusion to a crime,” the documents say.

Disobedient girls as young as 13 and 14 were confined in basements of the homes, the documents allege. A report from social workers says a 14-year-old girl they interviewed did not want to return to the community out of fear of marriage, and says she was being intimidated to keep her silent.

“She doesn’t want to return to the community because she is promised to a man, she is very scared and seems to be very indoctrinated and members of the community are very present (redacted) to intimidate this young girl so that she does not talk,” the documents state. The 14-year-old girl said that her father hit her in the face with a belt, and that the wife of a high-ranking sect member beat her with a coat hanger.

A person interviewed by police in the documents said he witnessed one member ordered to hit a woman in the face because she refused to wear a burqa-like covering as dictated by Shlomo Helbrans.

The documents also allege children were brought to Canada from other countries under a false pretext when they were really being brought for a future marriage. Children in the sect were allegedly told “there are black angels who will come find them and they will burn them in hell,” according to the documents.

Other allegations highlight the use of forced medication, including a report that a community member said her kids took “mixtures of water with green powder.” The documents say a man in the community “bought all kinds of pills in a pharmacy and never wanted to say the reasons.”

A person in the community was allegedly in charge of a committee that would oversee the parenting behaviour of families. If they were deemed to not be following religious guidelines, the committee leader would remove the children and place them with a different Lev Tahor family, the documents allege.

Helbrans told the Star that occasionally families would ask for help with their children and that they weren’t forcibly removed. “Oh my goodness, if someone do that, you have to sit behind bars for years for kidnapping. There were families that were asking help,” he said.

The sect posted a video of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans early Friday morning, before the release of the documents, in which he denies all allegations against the sect and accuses judges, child-protection workers and politicians of waging a campaign of “genocide” against Lev Tahor.

The documents state that in November 2013, when the sect fled Quebec in advance of a child protection order demanding the removal of 14 children, police activity “stepped up significantly.”

The warrants were sought to obtain “computer files and any related materials as well as anything else pertinent to demonstrate the elements constituting the infraction alleged in the warrant,” according to the materials. The alleged infraction was redacted.

Quebec police and local officers searched two homes in the sect’s Chatham community in late January. Searches were also conducted on homes in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts that belong to sect members. The warrants and the information used to obtain them were sealed by a court order; a coalition of media outlets, including the Toronto Star, argued successfully in court for the information’s release.

Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, along with the Quebec child protection authority were permitted to censor the document prior to its release in accordance with privacy laws.

On Feb. 3, Ontario Court of Justice Judge Stephen Fuerth ruled that 13 of the children should be returned to Quebec and subject to the order from that province. One of the original children, who is also a mother herself, is no longer a child under Ontario law because she is 17 years old.

The judge’s order was stayed for 30 days to allow the sect time to appeal. According to a leader of the sect who did not want to be named, the appeal will be filed Feb. 25.

With files from Alex Ballingall and Wendy Gillis.

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