Israeli Divorce Refusenik Breaks Out of Jerusalem Rabbinical Court

Police helicopters searching for man who had been behind bars for six years for refusing to grant his wife a religious divorce.

Large police forces accompanied by a helicopter mounted a search for a prisoner who had broken out from the Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem at midday on Wednesday.

The prisoner, a man who for years has refused to divorce his wife, was behind bars for almost six years. After the court hearing on Wednesday he asked to go to the bathroom, located on the courthouse's second floor, from where he jumped into the courtyard and fled.

Shai Cohen, 40, of Holon, lived with his wife for two years before they broke up some 12 years ago, after having two children. Since then he has refused to divorce her.

Five and a half years ago the Rabbinical Court sentenced him to prison. Until recently he obstinately refused to divorce his wife. But in the past weeks he apparently had a change of heart and the Rabbinical Court of Appeals has held several weekly hearings with the couple's attorneys with the intention of expediting a divorce settlement.

Cohen had been brought to the hearings from Ela Prison in the south, escorted by prison guards.

Osnat Karplus of Bar-Ilan University's Law Faculty Legal Clinics, the wife's attorney, told Haaretz that a breakthrough had occurred in Wednesday's hearing, when Cohen announced he was ready to reach understandings with his wife and divorce her, on condition his children visited him in jail a few times.

The hearing ended on an upbeat note with the attorneys set to draft an agreement leading to the divorce.

Then the prisoner asked to go to the men's room. When he did not return for some time the guards went to look for him and found one of his shoes in the rest room. They concluded the prisoner had jumped from the second-floor window to the courtyard and disappeared.

The police are looking into why the prisoner had not been handcuffed.

Cohen's attorney, Ariel Maman, told Haaretz he had spoken to him in private after the hearing, before he entered the men's room, but detected no warning sign of what was to follow.

"The hearing was positive, we managed to persuade him to sign a divorce agreement despite his prior objections," Maman said.

"The court instructed to return the case to the Be'er Sheva Regional Court to ratify the agreement. But for some reason, I don't know what came over him, he changed his mind. I saw no warning signal. It was a complete surprise," he said.

Maman, of the Justice Ministry's legal aid office in Be'er Sheva, was assigned to represent Cohen only hours before the hearing. He said Cohen had told him earlier,in the guards' presence, that he has been on a hunger strike for six days.

"Since I've only represented him for a few hours I didn't understand why he was on a hunger strike, but that's what he said. Perhaps it was a cover story to get him out of handcuffs," he said.

The Rabbinical Courts management said it takes harsh measures against recalcitrant husbands, including prolonged prison terms. "Regrettably the current case is not over yet and we hope the police will do everything in their power to capture the recalcitrant husband and end the unfortunate affair," the court's statement said.

Gil Eliahu
Tess Scheflan