'TA cult leader enslaved 17 women'

Police arrest self-styled 'spiritual guru' Goel Ratzon, 59, after 7-month undercover investigation.

A 59-year-old cult leader from south Tel Aviv who was romantically involved with 17 women and fathered 40 children with them was arrested on Tuesday morning on suspicion of "enslaving" members of his group and raping a number of the women.
Goel Razton, a self-styled 'spiritual guru,' was arrested during police raids on two addresses in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood on Tuesday morning, following a 7-month-long undercover investigation.
His 17 partners were detained for questioning and later taken with their children into temporary protective care by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.
A media gag order on the arrests was lifted on Thursday.
Dep.-Cmdr. Shlomi Michael, head of Tel Aviv police's Central Unit, said during a press conference on Thursday, "We have succeeded in gathering a great deal of evidence regarding the offenses of holding people under conditions of enslavement, and rape."
He added, "Three days ago, the open phase of the investigation began. The Central Unit, together with other police units, arrested the suspect, and detained 17 women and 38 children - nine of  them toddlers."
Michael added that the detectives who ran the investigation "were exposed to very difficult scenes, despite their long experience."
One detective broke down in tears in the course of the investigation, Michael said.
Ratzon's remand was extended on Wednesday by 12 days during a Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court session held behind closed doors. In addition to rape and enslavement, police said he was under suspicion of inciting the women to commit suicide.
Two women were also arrested - one on suspicion of physical abuse, and the other on suspicion of failing to report abuses to the authority.
The investigation was launched by Tel Aviv police's Central Unit in July 2009, when welfare services received information over alleged "sexual offenses within the family," police said.
After receiving the intelligence, an unprecedented inter-organizational effort was launched, involving dozens of police detectives, 150 social services employees, and central district state prosecutors, who concluded that sufficient evidence existed to prosecute Ratzon.
Despite a number of media reports claiming that police were upset with social services for failing to act sooner to disband Ratzon's cult, police strenuously denied making such accusations.
"We would like to stress that the investigation was carried out in close and full cooperation with social services and state prosecutors, and police have no links to the various claims being floated in the media," Tel Aviv police said.
Police prioritized the investigation above other cases and were allocated nearly unlimited funds out of fear for the safety of the women and children, one source close to the investigation said this week.
Police refused to say whether the children had become victims of sexual offenses.
Goel Ratzon has long been the target of suspicion by authorities, and welfare services are facing intense criticism for not acting sooner to disband the group.
But the women who lived with Ratzon did so on a voluntary basis, and both police and welfare services believe they were powerless to act until new anti-enslavement legislation was introduced in 2006.
Previous checks on children from Ratzon's group, carried out by social services at kindergartens, found that they were well dressed, well fed, and equipped for school, a fact social services believes ruled out the possibility of an intrusive investigation up until now.
An amendment to the anti-enslavement law, which prohibits anyone to "hold a person in conditions of slavery, including sexual slavery," enabled the authorities to act this week. The offense carries a 16-year maximum prison sentence.
The authorities are interpreting "slavery" in this case to mean "psychological slavery," resulting in total control by Ratzon of the women and children who lived with him in several different apartment complexes.
Armed with the new legislation, sources said, it was possible to move against Ratzon since the evidence allegedly shows that the women had "no choice" but to comply with his demands.
The undercover investigation made use of electronic monitoring equipment, and may have relied on an insider or a former insider. Detectives mapped out where each woman and child  slept in Ratzon's Tel Aviv housing complexes.
Police have refused to disclose whether a woman who had previously lived with Ratzon had tipped the authorities off and set the investigation in motion, but Ratzon's own defense attorney, Shlomzion Gabai, said her client had suspected that a former insider acted as asource on behalf of the authorities.
Ratzon was cooperating with police during the investigation, and answered questions. Sources say he is attempting to portray a "business as usual" approach during questioning.
Social services are now highly concerned over how the women will react to the arrests and the sudden manner in which their routine was disrupted. One source described the women as "being in a state of mourning."
Social services must now decide which women can be released to the care of family members together with their children. Other women may be permitted to care for their children only under the supervision of professionals. Some women could be deemed to pose too great a risk to their children, requiring separation. One woman is suspected by police of collaborating with Ratzon in a manner which jeopardized the safety of minors.
Authorities are viewing the first stage of the operation to disband the cult as a success, but say that the process of rehabilitating the women and children is a long and arduous one.
"This is a human and social phenomenon that is unacceptable in any civilized country," one source familiar with the investigation said. "The safety of the women and children were at risk."