Attorneys representing the alleged victims of a sex offender rabbi who has been accused of defrauding his sick and elderly followers out of millions of shekels on Wednesday protested his emerging plea bargain with prosecutors.
In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Jerusalem prosecutors, the lawyers derided the reported agreement as “absurd” and an “insult” to those swindled by Eliezer Berland, the leader of the extremist Shuvu Bonim sect, who allegedly conned his desperate followers out of huge sums of money with promises of miracle cures.
The details of the negotiations on the plea bargain, which are ongoing, have yet to be confirmed by the authorities. The alleged victims’ lawyers said that to the best of their knowledge, it would include 14 months of imprisonment, compensation of NIS 5,000-10,000 ($1,500-$3,000) per victim and a fine to be paid to the state.
Berland was arrested for fraud in February after hundreds of people complained to police that he had sold prayers and “wonder drugs” to desperate members of his community, and promised families of individuals with disabilities that their loved ones would be able to walk and families of convicted felons that their loved ones would be freed from prison. 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. He was charged in that case in March.
Berland has denied the charges, saying he only offered blessings and healing services when asked, and at sums far lower than those alleged by police.
In May, he was further charged with tax evasion, violations of money laundering laws and other offenses for failing to report and even concealing income generated through his activities with the Shuvu Bonim sect.
“We are turning to you on behalf of the victims of the crime, who are opposed to such a light plea bargain with a man who ruined their lives and murdered their souls, as this agreement only adds insult to injury,” the lawyers wrote.
They implored the attorney general and prosecutors not to give weight to Berland’s advanced age (82) and ill health in formulating the plea bargain, noting that legal authorities had freed Berland from prison early due to poor health several years ago when he was serving time for sex offenses. Yet Berland went on to commit other crimes, they said.
The lawyers further argued that a light sentence for Berland would erode public trust in the legal system. They also took issue with the compensation set out for the victims, saying a court should establish the rate.
Berland continues to command 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.