JOHANNESBURG – With one day to go before he was due to appear in court for a continuation of a bail application, fugitive Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s lawyers have brought an urgent appeal before the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria – to be heard by a judge Wednesday morning.
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Berland, one of the leaders of the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel and head of Yeshivat Shuvu Bonim in Jerusalem has been on the run since 2012 when allegations were made by female followers in Israel that he had sexually harassed or raped them.
Rabbi Berland is asking the court to declare that the warrant of arrest issued against him on February 18, 2016 by a Pretoria magistrate is invalid and unlawful and that therefore his arrest and detention are unlawful. He is demanding to be released by the South African police and South African government, requesting his passport be returned to him immediately.
In his affidavit, Rabbi Berland explains in detail why the arrest warrant against him is unlawful and says Israel has “ulterior political motives” to have him extradited.
In a covering letter, sent to local journalists, Rabbi Berland’s attorney, Themba Langa, wrote: “The Rabbi is not a fugitive from justice; he is only at loggerheads with the [Israeli] government on ideological issues pertaining to the Palestinian issue. The rabbi’s institute is situated in a Palestinian neighborhood.”
Langa continued that he and his client had reason to believe that Rabbi Berland was the victim of “an [extraordinary] rendition” even though it was being “processed through the courts”.
Berland testifies that it is clear from the documents attached to his affidavit that the warrant of arrest issued by a magistrate on the 18 February 2016 was issued before the South African government received an extradition request from the State of Israel.
According to the papers in Rabbi Berland’s application, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco, SA’s department of foreign affairs) received an extradition request from Israel and on the 26 February 2016 sent the request to the Department of Justice (DOJ). On the 29 February 2016 the DOJ sent the request to the Johannesburg office of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). The DOH made it clear to the NPA that the request for extradition has been submitted to the Minister of Justice.
Langa said: “The relief we seek is for the warrant to be set aside because a magistrate is not competent to issue a warrant of arrest on the basis of an opinion of a foreign government, without our Minister of Justice expressing his opinion on the matter. On the 18 February, the Minister of Justice had not yet received the request for extradition but the magistrate had already issued a warrant of arrest, allegedly on the basis of information that he received from the office of Interpol South Africa.
“When we requested Interpol South Africa to provide us with evidence that shows that they received the request from Interpol International or from the State of Israel, they failed to produce proof thereof. Therefore, it strongly appears that the Magistrate was misled.”
Langa said it was clear to him that Interpol South Africa “used its own channels, and not government channels,” to process the arrest warrant. Langa said the matter was especially suspicious, because Rabbi Berland, Langa claimed, “is not red-flagged by Interpol and is not on the Interpol wanted list”.
Berland said he has a diplomatic passport from the Republic of Cote- D’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) “due to my strong black Jewish following there. I have previously travelled to numerous countries in African teaching the Orthodox Jewish religion to mainly black Jews. In South Africa I am engaged in teaching black South African Jews.”
Berland testified that his main place of business remained Israel, “living in the town of Nablus which was [sic] a Palestine settlement in Israel”.
Berland said he had been informed “by my followers in Holland [when he was arrested there] that the Israeli police would attempt to kidnap me to take me to Israel and that the charges against me were made up of false allegations. According to them, the real reason for this was an assassination attempt on my life because of my past association with the Palestinians where I was staying in Nablus where I had Palestine followers. When the real reason became known to me why the Israeli Government wanted me back, for my own safety I then fled that country and eventually arrived in the Republic of South Africa.”