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Ultra-Orthodox mayor remanded amid suspicion he was present at 1990 murder

Unnamed city official ordered to remain behind bars for 4 more days; police say he played active role in murder of Avi Edri, along with members of radical Shuvu Banim sect

Avi Edri. (Courtesy)
Avi Edri. (Courtesy)

The current mayor of an ultra-Orthodox city was present and played an active role in the murder of Avi Edri 30 years ago, police told the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Monday.

The mayor, whose identity has been barred from publication, was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of involvement in the 1990 murder, which is also linked to convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland and his extremist Shuvu Bonim sect. The magistrate’s court extended the unnamed suspect’s remand by four days at the end of Monday’s hearing.

“In the evidence I have presented [to the court], it can be understood that the defendant acted together with others in an operation that led to [Edri’s] murder, and was also involved in the murder itself,” a police representative told the court.

When pressed by the mayor’s attorney, the police representative added that the suspect was present at the murder as well. The mayor was 17 years old at the time.

The police representative said that law enforcement was aware of the mayor’s ties to the crime, but only recently uncovered evidence that led to his arrest Sunday along with seven others. Their remands were also extended at Monday’s hearing.

The judge said during the hearing that the mayor had dressed up as a woman and driven a vehicle heading a convoy that led Edri to the murder scene, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Several other suspects awaited them and they proceeded to beat Edri to death at Berland’s direction, according to the evidence read aloud by the judge in court on Monday.

The mayor’s attorney told reporters that his client “has nothing to do with the grave affair and has no idea how his name was insinuated into it.”

Police say their investigations into the murder of 41-year-old Edri and the disappearance and suspected murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit are tied to the Shuvu Bonim sect, run by Berland.

Berland, currently in prison for fraud, was remanded earlier this month to allow his continued interrogation in connection to the murders. A police representative said that there was evidence showing Berland’s responsibility for, and involvement in, the killings.

One of those arrested last month was the husband of a woman who told police that she had been forced by sect members to lure one of the victims to a specific location. An attorney for the woman said that her client was a victim of the extremist sect, and that she is cooperating with police in order to see justice done.

Another suspect is reportedly the son of a former senior cabinet minister.

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

Police have previously said that some of those arrested were questioned over allegations of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Not all are suspected of direct involvement in the killings.

Edri was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem in 1990.

Shitrit was allegedly beaten by the sect’s “religious police” four months before he was last seen in January 1986. 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. His remains were never found and the case was never solved.

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

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

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.

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.

Berland entered prison last month after he was convicted of fraud in June, in a plea deal that saw him sentenced to 18 months.

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