Two leaders of the extreme ultra-Orthodox Lev Tahor cult, who were arrested in Mexico on suspicion of human trafficking and sex crimes last week, were set free due to “lack of evidence,” their lawyer said.
The two suspects have been identified in previous media reports as Menachem Mendel Alter, an Israeli citizen, and Canadian national Yoel Rosner.
They were detained following a raid last week on the Lev Tahor compound in southern Mexico and were facing up to 20 years in prison for the alleged crimes.
Their lawyer, Yaret Jiménez, told Spanish news agency Efe that her clients were “100% acquitted,” the BBC reported Saturday.
Jiménez said her clients were released on Thursday night, according to the report.
Jiménez suggested the accusations against the pair were used as a pretext for the raid on the Lev Tahor compound that saw authorities and an Israeli team remove a 3-year-old child who has since been reunited with his ex-cult member father and taken to Israel.
An unnamed source involved in the operation to raid the Lev Tahor compound told the BBC that releasing the pair of suspects was a blow to “the impressive and untainted legal work accomplished by the Attorney General’s Office and the police prior to and during the raid.”
The release of the pair came after about 20 members of the sect overpowered guards and escaped a government shelter in southern Mexico where they were being held since the raid operation.
Mostly made up of children and teens wearing long, flowing robes, members of the Lev Tahor sect pushed their way out of the complex Wednesday night, climbing over one guard from a private security company who had fallen to the ground.
They climbed aboard a waiting truck outside and headed toward Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Local police, the National Guard, and Mexico’s immigration agency said they did not pursue them.
Lev Tahor has also had legal problems elsewhere due to its alleged involvement in human trafficking and child sex crimes.
Earlier in September, over a week before the raid on the Lev Tahor compound, three members were sentenced in a US federal court for their role in a 2018 kidnapping, part of a case that has already led to the group’s unraveling and seen most its leadership hauled away to prison.
Cousins Matityau Moshe Malka and Mordechay Malka were given 66 months and 57 months in prison respectively, and Jacob Rosner received a 38-month sentence, for their roles in the abduction of two children from their mother’s New York home in 2018.
The three joined other members of the cult who have been sentenced to prison for of kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy from their mother in the village of Woodridge, in upstate New York. They smuggled the children across the US border into Mexico to reunite the girl with her adult “husband,” Rosner, whom she had been wed to in a religious ceremony a year prior.
A jury found them guilty of charges related to conspiracy and international parental kidnapping in June.
Two other Lev Tahor members are in custody in New York. In April, Yakev Weingarten and his brother Shmiel Weingarten were extradited from Guatemala and arraigned before a US federal judge. Yakev Weingarten took the reins of Lev Tahor after Helbrans was imprisoned.
The sect was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014, after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage. Helbrans drowned in Mexico under mysterious circumstances in 2017 and his son took over the group.
An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, has put the cult’s membership at between 300 to 350 people.
Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group were moving around the Balkans earlier this year. Some members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the cult swore allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” because women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, including their faces, in most cases.
The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah. The group also adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.
Luke Tress contributed to this report.