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Followers of a self-styled rabbi accused of severely abusing small children were handed heavy jail sentences by the Jerusalem District Court yesterday.

The men "lost their human character," said judge Nava Ben-Or.

The convicts, led by Rabbi Elior Chen, allegedly used knives, hammers and other items to abuse the children of one of the rabbi's followers in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit in February and March 2008.

David Kugman, the key suspect in the case aside from Chen, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Shimon Gabay and Avraham Maskalchi were given 17-year sentences. Roi Zuref, whom the court determined had had a smaller role in the abuse, was given a 30-month jail term.

The four men were convicted on numerous charges of abusing two brothers, ages 3 and 4.

The boys' mother was recently sentenced to five years in prison for her role in the abuse. She later turned state's witness in the trial against Chen; a verdict is expected soon.

The abuse included beatings, burns, intense shaking, leaving the children undressed during the winter, sleep deprivation and forcing them to drink alcohol. The assaults left the younger child in a coma, at which point the case came to light. He has not recovered.

Chen initially fled to Brazil, where he was arrested by local police in June 2008 after a 45-day manhunt. He has been in Israeli custody since his extradition last year.