Israel Police suspect that the owners of a leading ultra-Orthodox website posted incriminating information on the website’s forum under the guise of regular internet surfers, and then bribed the victims, according to statements released on Monday.
Four arrests were made on Sunday, including the CEO, vice-president of sales, and two content editors of the website, and more arrests are expected to follow.
Behadrey Haredim, one of the top two websites among members of the Haredi community, reports news, as well as offers message boards. The message boards became an online hub for the ultra-Orthodox community, despite opposition from many senior rabbis. Only registered users with permission from the site’s management are allowed to post on the message boards.
According to reports, a substantial portion of posts on the message boards were written by the website’s management, posing as regular users. Police suspect that people would contact the website’s staff after reading incriminating posts about themselves, and offer to pay for removal of the comments. An ultra-Orthodox media official claimed that people preferred to pay and keep quiet.
Tamar Ben Asher, a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge, explained that the website staff took advantage of people in vulnerable situations. The website’s management is suspected of extorting Haredi and secular businessmen, as well as rabbis, for sums of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of shekels.
Police also suspect the website staff of approaching individuals in order to blackmail them. The website agreed not to post incriminating information in return for monthly payments. Ultra-Orthodox organizations also paid the ransom, according to reports. Last night, the content editor was released, and the other three website officials’ remand was extended. The website’s CEO will be held for another four days, and the other two website staff members were released on house arrest.
Rumors of the extortion scheme have flooded the Haredi community for a long time. A few months ago, an undercover investigation was launched following complaints to the police, but the file was closed due to lack of evidence. Two weeks ago, messages were posted on the website leading to the arrests. The messages included accusations of debauchery and infidelity against two well known members of the Hardedi community, Y. and S. The incriminating acts supposedly took place during a “Shabbat Chatan” organized by one of the men.
The community members approached the website, asking for the posts to be removed. Website staff responded – “no problem, we’ll meet to discuss it.” Y. claims that the CEO of the website came to Jerusalem to meet him, and Y. recorded their conversation. Y. states that on the recording, the CEO of the website is heard saying that he would immediately remove the posts in exchange for a payment of 12,000 dollars every month, over the next year. Y. says he requested to think the proposition over. That evening, Y. received a phone call from the CEO asking for his decision. The next afternoon, when Y. saw more incriminating information posted on the site, he decided to turn to the police, and pass along the recordings.
Sharon Kinan, the lawyer representing the CEO said, “My client is complying with the investigators. These are false accusations, and we are sure that this will be made clear in the coming days. My client did in fact meet with various people, but not in order to extort them.” In regard to the recordings, Kinan said,“We have not seen evidence of any recordings, and I’m sure they do not exist. The courts decided to differentiate between the CEO and the other suspects. The truth will be made clear soon.”
Yair Golan, the lawyer representing the content editor sent to house arrest said that “while the suspicions are grave, the court feels that it is not necessary to keep my client under arrest. My client denies the allegations.”
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