The three central defendants in a Jerusalem cult were indicted in the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday, in a case of what police and social workers have called the worst abuse of its kind they have seen in decades.
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Nine members of the cult, a well-known polygamous Breslav family based in Jerusalem, were arrested last week. Three men were taken into custody, and six women – along with 15 children – were placed in separate shelters across the country.
A gag order preventing publication of any details from the case meant that journalists were not allowed access to the full charge sheet. Instead, the court released a much-edited version Wednesday morning to protect the identities of the victims in a case that has shocked the country.
However, Judge Noam Sohlberg later ruled to release parts of the charge sheet against the three members of a Jerusalem cult charged earlier in the day.
“At least part of the horrific descriptions in the charge sheet should be brought to public notice, to parents and children, because it seems that this is not an isolated event,” wrote Sohlberg.
“There are other people whose relatives were caught in similar sects, and who had given up hope of rescuing their near ones from the sect; or who had perhaps not done everything possible in this regard because they did not know how horrific [the sects] are,” he added.
Sohlberg said that publishing details of the charges against the three cult members may be a “vital service to those families and to other people trapped in cults like this one, encouraging them not to give up, but to exhaust every possible effort to escape from the sect.”
Although both the state prosecutors and attorneys for the three men charged with the offenses had agreed to the gag order, journalists had criticized the decision – partly on the grounds that the public had a right to know details of the case.
According to the edited version of the charge sheet that Judge Sohlberg included in his ruling, the first defendant was indicted on charges including slavery, abuse of a minor, false imprisonment, sexual and severe violence.
The first and main defendant was the head of the “family,” and lived with six women and “tens of children,” some of which were his biological offspring.
The defendant had total control over the lives of the women and children, whom he sent to work as beggars and to spread religious material.
The charge sheet describes the defendant as perpetrating a “cruel regime of punishment, which he had dubbed ‘the laws.’” Among the forms of “exceptional cruelty” that the defendant perpetrated against the victims were violence, starvation, physical and mental abuse, severe degradation and humiliation, and sex offenses.
These forms of punishment were also carried out against children from the family, the charge sheet noted.
The first defendant is charged, among other things, with carrying out serious sexual offenses against his biological daughters and against some of his other children.
This regime, the charge sheet said, was carried out in the family home, and the absolute subordination of the women and children to the first defendant was implemented in light of his “charismatic personality and the spiritual qualities attributed to him.”
Two additional indictments were filed Wednesday against two other men in the family house, who also perpetrated violent acts and sex offenses at the behest of the “head of the family.”
One of these additional two defendants lived in the family’s home, and took an active part in perpetrating violence and sex offenses over a period of several years.
According to the charge sheet, on one occasion a minor was subjected to serious violence and sexual abuse in order to “teach her a lesson.”
The second man was charged with assisting the first defendant in performing acts of humiliation and degradation, including serious violence and sexual abuse.
The third man was indicted on charges including serious violence and sexual abuse committed against a minor during a process of cruel and violent punishment.
Sohlberg also ruled that the three accused would be remanded in custody pending a further hearing on August 18.
The arrests of the cult members were carried out in cooperation with the Jerusalem police, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, and the Jerusalem municipality.
The cult has been in existence for more than 10 years, but it was only over the past two that the violence increased in frequency and severity. Social services had visited the family’s home a number of times in the past two years, but were unable to find any clear evidence of abuse.
The 15 children were not enrolled in school, instead being “educated” at home. Many of them learned to play musical instruments, and the “family” regularly performed together, sometimes in concerts that drew hundreds of people.
Though polygamy is illegal, living arrangements such as the Jerusalem cult’s cannot be broken up unless there is definite presence of physical, mental or sexual abuse.
A breakthrough in the case came a few months ago, when the defendant’s seventh wife, who had lived in the house for a year and a half, broke away from the family. Six months later, she turned to the authorities with a harrowing story of sexual and emotional abuse.
In a police raid of the cult’s main home in Jerusalem, officers found stun guns, electric cables and wooden rods.
One of the three men indicted, who most often carried out the abuses, was known by nicknames of “Satan” and “Evil Inclination.”