Police said Tuesday that they arrested three more suspects in connection with the suspected murder of a teenage boy and the unsolved murder of a man in the 1980s and 1990s connected to the extremist ultra-Orthodox Shuvu Bonim sect.
The former hard-line Islamist, today a bearded prisoner in his 50s, said he once held beliefs that justified violence.
"I believed Muslims had a duty to fight oppressive rulers who don't apply Islamic law, and to attack states that fight Muslims," he told AFP in the library of Kenitra prison, near Rabat.
But those ideas were based on a literal reading of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed "that I wasn't qualified to understand", he says.
Today, after passing through the North African kingdom's Moussalaha ("Reconciliation") programme, he is hoping for a reprieve.
The programme, launched in 2015 and led by Morocco's DGAPR prison service with several partner organisations, aims to help terror detainees who are willing to question their beliefs.
The three newly arrested suspects, who brought the total number of arrests in the case to six, are all in their 60s — two residents of Jerusalem and one of Haifa.
According to Hebrew media reports, one of those arrested was the son of a former senior government minister.
A second detainee was the husband of a woman who has told police she was forced by sect members to lure one of the victims to a specific location. The woman was one of three suspects arrested on Sunday in connection with the case. An attorney for the woman has said that her client was a victim of the extremist sect, and is cooperating with police in order to see justice done.
The three newly arrested suspects later appeared in court, which ordered that two of them remain in custody for six days. The third suspect was released to house arrest for a period of five days.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, law enforcement are probing whether convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland, head of the Shuvu Bonim sect, was personally involved in the disappearance and suspected murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit, and the murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri.
A court ordered all three people arrested Sunday — two men and one woman — remanded into custody for an additional eight days.
Police said that those individuals were arrested and questioned over allegations of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Most details of the investigation are under a gag order that is in place until the end of the year.
Shitrit was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986.
In a documentary released by Kan in 2020, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the religious police murdered the boy, dismembered him and buried his body in Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.
Kan reported Sunday evening that police had not made any progress toward locating Shitrit’s body.
The second murder reportedly connected to the arrested suspects was of Edri, who was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem in 1990.
Kan reported that Edri’s murder was tied to Shuvu Bonim by former disciples. It too has remained unsolved for over 30 years.
The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.
Berland, its leader, fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers. After evading arrest for three years and slipping through various countries, Berland returned to Israel and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016, on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal that included seven months of time served. He was freed just five months later, in part due to his ill health.
Berland was arrested for fraud in February 2020, after hundreds of people filed police complaints saying that he had sold prayers and pills to desperate members of his community, promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk, and told families of convicted felons that their relatives would be freed from prison.
Last May, he was further charged with tax evasion, violations of money laundering laws, and other offenses for failing to report and concealing income generated through his activities with Shuvu Bonim.
Berland is set to return to prison this month after being convicted of fraud in a plea deal in June that saw him sentenced to 18 months in prison. But the sentence will include time already served, as Berland spent a year in jail before being released to house arrest in February of this year.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.
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