Court rejects TA cult leader's remand appeal

The Jerusalem Post/January 14, 2010

The Tel Aviv District Court on Friday rejected an appeal filed by self-styled spiritual 'guru' Goel Ratzon over the extension of his remand.

Ratzon was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of "enslaving" members of his group and raping several of the 17 women with whom he was romantically involved.

His remand was extended on Wednesday by 12 days at a Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court session held behind closed doors.

The 59-year-old fathered an estimated 60 children with the 17 women, including around 40 who are still minors.

A gag order on the case was lifted midday on Thursday.

Ratzon was arrested during police raids on two addresses in the Hatikva neighborhood, following a seven-month undercover investigation.

A woman who had lived with Ratzon before leaving the cult is widely believed to have tipped off the authorities and set the investigation in motion. According to some reports, she was asked to return to one of the the cult leader's homes by police and to act as an undercover agent.

Ratzon's defense attorney, Shlomzion Gabai, said her client suspected that a former insider acted as a source on behalf of the authorities.

In addition to rape and enslavement, police said Ratzon was under suspicion of inciting the women to commit suicide.

Two women were also arrested - one on suspicion of physical abuse, and the other on suspicion of failing to report abuses to the authority.

Ratzon's 17 partners were detained for questioning, and later taken with their children into temporary protective care by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.

Police have refused to disclose whether the children were victims of sexual offenses, saying the investigation is still under way.

Ratzon is cooperating with police and has answered questions, telling them everything that went on in his homes took place "of their own free will."

Sources say he is trying to present a "business-as-usual" demeanor during questioning.

"We have managed to gather a great deal of evidence regarding the offenses of holding people under conditions of enslavement and rape," Dep.-Cmdr. Shlomi Michael, head of Tel Aviv police's Central Unit, said during a press conference on Thursday.

"Three days ago, the open phase of the investigation began," he said. "The Central Unit, together with other police units, arrested the suspect, and detained 17 women and 38 children - nine of them toddlers."

Michael added that the officers who ran the investigation "were exposed to very difficult scenes, despite their long experience."

One detective broke down in tears in the course of the investigation, Michael said.

The investigation was opened by Tel Aviv police's Central Unit last June, when welfare services received information regarding alleged "sexual offenses within the family," police said.

An unprecedented inter-organizational effort was launched, involving dozens of police detectives, 150 social services employees, and Central District state prosecutors, who concluded sufficient evidence was available to prosecute Ratzon.

Despite a number of media reports claiming that police were upset with social services for failing to act sooner to disband Ratzon's cult, police strenuously denied making such accusations.

"We would like to stress that the investigation was carried out in close and full cooperation with social services and state prosecutors, and police have no links to the various claims being floated in the media," Tel Aviv police said.

Police prioritized the investigation above other cases and were allocated nearly unlimited funds out of fear for the safety of the women and children, a source close to the investigation said this week.

Ratzon had long been the target of suspicion by authorities, and welfare services are facing intense criticism for not acting sooner to disband the group.

But the women who lived with Ratzon did so on a voluntary basis, some sources say, and both police and welfare services believe they were powerless to act until new anti-enslavement legislation was introduced in 2006.

Previous checks on children from Ratzon's group, carried out by social services at kindergartens, found that they were well-dressed, well-fed, and equipped for school, a fact social services believed ruled out an intrusive investigation until now.

An amendment to the anti-enslavement law, which prohibits holding a person "in conditions of slavery, including sexual slavery," enabled the authorities to act this week. The offense carries a 16-year maximum prison sentence.

The authorities are interpreting "slavery" in this case to mean "psychological slavery," resulting in total control by Ratzon of the women and children who lived with him in various apartment complexes.

Armed with the new legislation, sources said, it was possible for the authorities to act against Ratzon, since the evidence allegedly shows that the women had "no choice" but to comply with his demands.

The undercover investigation made use of electronic monitoring equipment.

Detectives mapped out where each woman and child slept in Ratzon's Tel Aviv housing complexes.

Social services are now highly concerned over how the women will react to the arrests and the sudden manner in which their routine was disrupted. One source described the women as "being in a state of mourning."

Social workers must now decide which women can be released to the care of family members together with their children. Other women may be permitted to care for their children only under the supervision of professionals. Some women could be deemed to pose too great a risk to their children, requiring separation. One woman is suspected by police of collaborating with Ratzon in a manner that jeopardized the safety of minors.

Authorities see the first stage of the operation to disband the cult as a success, but say that the process of rehabilitating the women and children will be long and arduous.

"This is a human and social phenomenon that is unacceptable in any civilized country," one source familiar with the investigation said. "The safety of the women and children was at risk.

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