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Cult's so-called religious police said to beat teen to death

2 members of Berland’s sect charged over ‘extremely cruel’ 1986 murder of teen

One suspect is unnamed son of an ex-minister; indictment says they were part of group that lured Nissim Shitrit, 17, before beating him to death due to disapproval of his lifestyle

Nissim Shitrit in an undated photo. (Screenshot: Kan public broadcaster)
Nissim Shitrit in an undated photo. (Screenshot: Kan public broadcaster)

Two followers of convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland’s Shuvu Bonim sect were charged on Friday in connection with the 1986 murder of a teen.

The two were indicted over the murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit. His body was never found and Friday’s charges were the first made in connection with his death.

One of the suspects charged in the case is the son of a former minister. His name has not been released for publication. The second suspect was Baruch Sharvit, a Shuvu Bonim follower.

According to the indictment, some of those involved in the abduction and death of Shitrit have not yet been detained.

Prosecutors asked for the suspects to remain in detention until the end of legal proceedings.

“The serious acts attributed to the accused indicate his danger to the public despite the lapse of time since the murder attributed to him,” read the indictment for one of the suspects. “The fact that this is a multi-stage event, a very complex and extremely cruel event which was intended to impose the lifestyles of the defendants on the deceased and the public, establishes a reasonable basis for fear that his release will endanger public safety.”

Baruch Sharvit on a screen via a video link during a court hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, on December 3, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the indictment, Shitrit was suspected by members of the sect of having some form of relationship with a girl, in contravention of the sect’s religious norms, the Ynet news site reported.

The teen was collected from his boarding school in Ashdod by the sect’s “religious police,” in January 1986, four months before he disappeared.

He was driven to Jerusalem and taken to a secluded location, where he was beaten.

Shitrit, who was a volunteer with the police, filed a complaint over the assault, and one of his suspected killers was detained for questioning. That individual fled the country after Shitrit was killed, in an attempt to construct an alibi, Channel 12 news reported.

The report said that Shitrit was lured to his death four months later by a woman connected to the sect who pretended that she wanted to spend the night with him. When Shitrit arrived at the address she gave him, he was beaten by the same group of followers who carried out the first assault.

When the suspects realized the attack was making too much noise, they moved to a second location before burying him outside Jerusalem.

In a documentary broadcast 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.

Nobody has been indicted yet in the second, related case of the murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990. He was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem.

Avi Edri. (Courtesy)

Berland was released on Thursday from remand after he was detained in connection with the two murders — but remains in prison to serve a sentence on unrelated charges.

Berland, the leader of the extremist Shuvu Bonim sect, has been implicated in the murder of Edri and the kidnapping and murder of Shitrit. Police have accused Berland of sending his followers to kill Shitrit. His followers have also been tied to Edri’s death.

But on Thursday prosecutors said they would release Berland and his son-in-law, Tzvi Tzucker, as well as a third suspect — an unnamed Haredi mayor — under restrictions.

Last month, Berland was remanded in custody for continued interrogation over his role in the cold case murders. Judge Elad Lang said at the time that “there was reasonable suspicion that [Berland] committed offenses. He implicated himself and provided a detailed version of events.”

Though he is being released from custody in regards to the decades-old murders, he will remain in prison on charges of fraud for swindling sick and elderly followers out of millions of shekels. He previously served a sentence in prison for sexual assault.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing in Jerusalem, November 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday it was reported that another suspect in the killing of Edri recently died of complications related to the coronavirus at a northern hospital.

Dozens of figures — including many with ties to local and national politics — have been questioned in connection with the two alleged homicides, after the case burst back onto the scene in mid-October with a series of arrests.

Last month, an ultra-Orthodox current mayor was remanded in custody over allegations that he was present at Edri’s murder when he was 17.

The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.

Berland 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.

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