Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who was convicted of defrauding his followers and is under house arrest, is guarded by a member of his inner circle – contrary to the strict conditions of his release. Berland was released to house arrest in February, required to wear an electronic bracelet and to be guarded by a private security firm at his own expense.
The company, MAG 58, was selected after it stated that it had no connection to Berland. Haaretz has learned that although MAG 58 is officially in charge of Berland’s security, he is actually being guarded by one of his followers, Shmuel Gabbay.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Sunday, after the parties agreed that Berland would serve an 18-month prison term. After deducting for time served and the near-automatic sentence reduction of one-third, he is not expected to be in prison for more than a few days.
The rabbi previously served time in prison on sexual assault charges.
Gabbay drove Berland to the Jerusalem District Court last Monday, when the plea bargain was approved. Video of the trip was shared by Berland’s followers. It shows Berland and Gabbay traveling in a rental car but arriving at court in an ambulance, to which Berland was transferred en route.
In WhatsApp groups for Berland’s followers, Gabbay’s father and brother said he was responsible for guarding the rabbi. According to Gabbay’s brother, Gabbay put up hundreds of thousands of shekels to guarantee that Berland would not flee.
“The moment you put 700,000 shekels [$215,160] from your pocket as a guarantee ... you’ll do everything by the book,” the brother said. “I promise you. My brother Shmuel put even more than 700,000 shekels from his own pocket so the rabbi could get out. You get it? There was no security firm in the country who were told, put down cash and they put down cash like my brother did.”
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In discussions in WhatsApp groups about the fact that Berland’s followers customarily run after his car on the roads, endangering other drivers, Gabbay’s brother explained how his son picked Berland up from Ayalon Prison to the secret location where he is required to remain under house arrest. “Yesterday when the rabbi got out, my son took him. My son flew like a jet plane ... he drove so fast the rabbi got bumped a few times.”
Gabbay admitted to Haaretz that he was guarding Berland, through a subcontractor of MAG 58. However, Gabbay denied that he was doing so through a security firm that he had once owned and had closed, S.G. Security. In addition, he denied that he had paid 700,000 shekels as a guarantee against Berland’s fleeing.
Last week at the end of in a hearing in which the Jerusalem District Court approved a plea bargain with Berland, Jerusalem district prosecutor Miriam Ben-Gal criticized Berland’s lawyer, Amit Hadad, demanding to know how Gabbay came to drive Berland to court, contrary to the conditions of his release. “According to the ruling, [Berland] must not be in contact with his congregation. I want to understand how Gabbay was with him in the vehicle,” she said.
In response, a member of Berland’s inner circle told Haaretz: “We did it to them this way [making a roundabout gesture with his hand], but this time they were on to it.” Hadad responded to Ben-Gal in court saying he didn’t know how that had come about. “I don’t even know who Shmuel Gabbay is,” he claimed. However, in March of last year, Hadad did know who Gabbay was. Hadad asked the court to release Berland to house arrest, and proposed that S.G. Security be responsible for fulfilling the conditions of the release. “This is Shmuel Gabbay’s company. It will guard the respondent,” Hadad told the court at the time.
Hadad also told Haaretz that he doesn’t know who Gabbay is, and he couldn’t explain how Gabbay had driven the vehicle taking Berland to court. “Following this incident, this week we conveyed to the prosecution a list of the names of the people who come in contact with the rabbi. There were no objections to the names and they were approved,” Hadad said.
Hadad claimed that the prosecution had rejected the proposal that Gabbay’s company guard the rabbi because at that time, the prosecution opposed his release to house arrest, not because Gabbay was close to the rabbi. “The directors of MAG 58 are the ones who took responsibility for guarding the rabbi, not Shmuel Gabbay. I don’t go into detail about who is with Rabbi Berland,” he added.
Although Ben-Gal depicted the incident in which Gabbay was present alongside the rabbi as a one-time occurrence, the prosecution has known about it for two months at least. In a letter to the prosecution sent in April by attorney Yaakov Shklar, he presented proof of the fact that Berland’s security was in the hands of a sub-contractor and the person actually guarding him was Gabbay.
Shklar wrote: “Is not the fact that Berland, a serial criminal who is at serious risk of fleeing from justice, being guarded by his followers who do his bidding; what’s more, they have proven more than once their willingness to commit crimes for him – not the very definition of absurdity?”
The prosecution responded: “Berland was incarcerated for 12 months in this case and thereafter the court decided to transfer him to house arrest with an electronic bracelet and under strict conditions. As we insisted throughout the proceedings under conditions that would insure the protection of the public and prevent him from fleeing, we will continue to do so until the end of the proceedings against Berland."
MAG 58 did not respond to a request for comment.