JOHANNESBURG – After a fraught and sometimes bizarre hearing, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, wanted for sex crimes in Israel, was denied bail on Thursday in the Randburg magistrate’s court, South Africa.
This means that Berland, 78, will be detained at the Medium A section of Johannesburg Prison, known sarcastically by inmates and others as Sun City, for the remainder of Passover and until his extradition order is signed by the Minister of Justice.
South African government departments are not well-known for the rapid processing of bureaucratic matters but it is understood that the Israeli embassy will be doing its best to have Berland’s extradition implemented as quickly as possible. It is understood too that Berland will be allowed to keep the single cell that Regional Magistrate Pravina Raghunandan had ordered due to his age and dietary requirements.
Berland may appeal against the bail finding but then, given the serious backlogs in the SA “justice system,” he could be held in custody for literally months.
Berland, one of the leaders of the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel and considered a holy man by his followers, has been on the run since 2012 when female followers in Israel alleged he had sexually assaulted them.
Berland has managed to live under the noses of authorities from Morocco to the Netherlands and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, prior to his arrest on April 7, he had been staying at hotels and golf estates. He is followed by about 40 families, to whom he is a spiritual guru.
The day did not go off without incident, however. It began with Berland’s attorney, Themba Langa, alleging in his final submissions that the fake Israeli passport found in Berland’s possession when he was arrested had been “planted” by Interpol agents.
Langa also took offense at Raghunandan remarking that he sometimes tended to “manipulate” evidence. Langa told the magistrate that he did not “like being called names by the court.” Court was adjourned for 20 minutes and when the magistrate returned, she asked Langa three times if he wished to apply for her recusal. He declined.
Langa said it seemed understandable that Berland believed he was “under threat” by Israel because, he said, “why else would a state spend so much money and energy chasing a man accused of kissing a woman on the cheek?”
Langa also accused South Africa of trying to “microwave justice” by omitting certain steps in the extradition process and that therefore Berland’s continued detention was unlawful.
Advocate Harold Knopp presented a number of legal precedents on behalf of the Berland. He argued that there did exist ways in which Berland could be given bail while at the same time “the interests of justice” could be served.
Knopp suggested house arrest, electronic tagging, and other stringent conditions. After all, he said, the same court had given bail to one Shai Musli, said to be head of one of the largest and most influential crime families in Israel and wanted for conspiracy to commit a number of murders. Knopp said he knew Musli was obeying his bail stipulations and had not fled because he was one of Musli’s legal representatives.
Prosecutor Nerisha Naidoo said the “truncation” of the extradition process had been by agreement between the prosecution and defense; that she was dismayed by the apparent connection between Berland and Musli (via Knopp); and that Berland was clearly a flight risk if one considered that he had somehow managed to procure other passports when his extradition appeal failed in Holland. He had then fled the Netherlands, forfeiting bail of 50,000 euros.
“Berland clearly does not act alone, he has assistance everywhere. This country does not have to bend over backwards for a fugitive from justice,” said Naidoo.
After a long adjournment, Raghunandan said she had carefully considered the evidence from everyone. She said she was concerned that Berland’s affidavits “were worryingly devoid of information” – he said he was in danger from Israel and various other people but offered no detail. Above all, it was his “brazen” procurement of a passport in Holland while on bail and then his departure from Holland that “weighed heavily” with her.
She concluded, therefore, she said, that Berland was definitely a flight risk, bail was accordingly denied, and Berland had to be detained in prison until the Minister of Justice signed off on the extradition.
As she left the court, Berland’s main assistant, known only as Natan, walked up to the prosecutor’s desk, saying loudly, “They want to kill him, that is all, they want to kill him, that is what this is about, they want to kill him. How can you send an old man to a place where he cannot eat?”
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