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Ultra-Orthodox mayor said questioned over cold-case murders from ’80s, ’90s

Municipal leader of an unnamed city is latest to be interrogated over killings of Nissim Shitrit and Avi Edri, tied to Eliezer Berland’s extremist Shuvu Bonim sect

Nissim Shitrit (L) and Avi Edri in undated photos (Courtesy)
Nissim Shitrit (L) and Avi Edri in undated photos (Courtesy)

An ultra-Orthodox mayor of an unnamed city was questioned by police Sunday over his suspected involvement with decades-old homicide cases linked to an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect, reports said.

Police later announced that two suspects had been detained for interrogation, but gave no further details regarding their identities.

The two suspects are to be brought before a court on Tuesday to extend their remand, police said.

A number of people have been detained recently over the death of a teenage boy in the 1980s and the unsolved murder of a man in the 1990s.

Most details of the investigation are under a gag order that is in place until the end of the year.

The investigation into the disappearance and suspected murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit and the murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri is tied to the Shuvu Bonim sect, run by convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland.

Berland, currently jailed 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 cases.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

In this handout image released by the police, a suspect reportedly a member of the Shuvu Bonim sect is arrested in Jerusalem, October 17, 2021. (Israel Police)

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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