The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Thursday extended by eight days the detention of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a convicted sex offender who has been arrested anew for allegedly fleecing millions of shekels from terminally ill patients by promising miraculous recoveries.
Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly wrote in her decision that Berland “cynically exploited” his alleged victims by, among other things, giving “Mentos to patients under the guise of medication.”
During the deliberations Berland’s attorney Amit Hadad raised the issue of his client’s poor health as a reason to not keep him in custody.
Lary-Bavly shot back, “Give him a Mentos.”
Dozens of Berland’s supporters demonstrated outside the court during the proceedings, their vocal protests audible in the courtroom.
Berland was arrested for fraud after hundreds of people complained to police against him for selling prayers and “wonder drugs” to desperate members of his community, and for promising families of handicapped individuals that their loved ones would be able to walk and families of convicted felons that their loved ones would be freed from prison.
He was arrested Sunday in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood along with his wife and other senior members of his ultra-Orthodox Shuvu Bonim sect as his followers clashed with police nearby.
In the arrest raid, dozens of boxes of powders and pills were found at Berland’s home that were given to supplicants as “wonder drugs.” Initial laboratory checks revealed them to be over-the-counter pain medication and candy, including Mentos, officials said.
In a statement to the court, police said their covert investigation into Berland, launched several months ago, opened a Pandora’s box that saw 200 witnesses ultimately step forward.
Berland denied the charges during Sunday’s court hearing, saying he only offered blessings and healing services when asked, and at sums far lower than those alleged by police. The court at the time ordered the suspects held for five days.
Berland commands a cult-like following among the thousands of members of his group, an offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He 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 ill health.
Since then, he has resumed his activities as the leader of the Shuvu Bonim community.
Attorney Hadad, who is also on the team defending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his corruption cases, told Channel 12 Thursday that he took on Berland’s case out of sympathy for the rabbi, noting his failing health and the way he was being treated while under arrest.
Berland, 82, underwent a stent procedure on Wednesday but was handcuffed to his bed while at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Immediately after the procedure he was taken to a prison service medical center at the Ayalon Prison, in the central region of the country.
“They take an 82-year-old man, who is suffering from cancer and has one kidney, ignore his condition, and now they are asking to extend his arrest? He won’t survive this,” Hadad told the channel.
On Wednesday Channel 12 aired a recording obtained by investigators of a conversation between Berland and an assistant when he was being held in detention ahead of his sex offense trial. Berland is heard instructing the aide to use violence to intimidate two people who were considering filing complaints against him for sex offenses.
In the recording Berland urges the aide to instruct followers to boycott the two people by not coming within a certain distance of them and that all “are permitted to break their bones.”