JOHANNESBURG – A South African judge on Thursday rejected Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s request to have his detention in Johannesburg Prison declared unlawful, saying he remained a flight risk and could not be trusted.
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A week ago, Berland, 79 – one of the leaders of the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel, and wanted for alleged sex crimes – launched an urgent application, arguing that he should be released to a “place of safety” pending a legal review launched by his legal team on June 14.
Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane, in the South Gauteng High Court in downtown Johannesburg, said Thursday that last week’s application was based on the argument that the extradition process in Randburg Magistrate’s Court had been flawed and irregular, and therefore unlawful, and that the denial of bail to Berland and his detention at Johannesburg Prison – known sarcastically by inmates and others as “Sun City” – should be “set aside.”
However, Kathree-Setiloane ruled that the extradition and bail hearings had not been irregular in any major way and rejected the argument. She also ruled that Berland was clearly “very resourceful” and well-connected and, especially because he had jumped bail of 50,000 euros ($55,000) in The Netherlands and had had two fake passports in his possession, he remained a “flight risk.” She would therefore not allow him to leave detention. “He cannot be trusted,” said the judge.
She was aware that Berland is 79, in ill-health and has special dietary needs, but the evidence before her was that his needs were being well met in prison.
The judge also said that one of the reasons she didn’t want to grant him bail was that, in her view, Berland’s review had “no prospect of success.”
After the judgment, members of the defense team and some of Berland’s assistants asked Prosecutor Nerisha Naidoo whether, given the ruling, she could arrange for Berland to be extradited to Israel as quickly as possible.
They said they were concerned about the rabbi’s welfare in prison and said they could arrange a ticket almost immediately. Naidoo replied that if a request was made in writing, she would see what she could arrange.
The review, which has been served on the Minister of Justice, Michael Masutha, the prosecution service, and Randburg Magistrate’s Court, questions the legality of the decision to extradite Berland to Israel. The extradition order was signed by the minister on June 3.
Berland, rosh yeshiva of Shuvu Bonim in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, has been on the run from Israel since 2012, when female followers in Israel alleged that he had sexually assaulted them.
Berland managed to live under the noses of authorities from Morocco to The Netherlands and Zimbabwe, until he was arrested by a heavily armed contingent of South African police on April 7.
Following an often fraught set of hearings in Randburg Magistrate’s Court, Berland was then denied bail because he was “deemed to be a flight risk.” On April 29, he was committed to detention pending the signing of his extradition order.
After this, a number of stories appeared in Israeli and local Jewish media reporting that the chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, had flown to South Africa in an attempt to secure Berland’s release. On May 26, Haaretz reported that Berland, having met Grossman, had “signed an extradition agreement” [sic] and would “soon” return to Israel.
On May 27, on the Shuvu Bonim website, Berland released a letter and audio recording to his followers, saying, “I decided to return to Israel.”
Outside the courtroom, one of his assistants said Thursday that Berland “often changed his mind about decisions,” and that the actual signing of the extradition order by Masutha seemed to have made him decide to take the matter on review rather than return to Israel.