JOHANNESBURG – Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s bail hearing is scheduled to continue this Tuesday morning in the Randburg Magistrate’s court, on the northwest side of Johannesburg. But, given what took place at the hearing last week, especially on Thursday and Friday, there is no guarantee that the hearing will reach an end.
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Berland emerged Friday morning from the holding cells below the court shouting that he was “going to die” because at Kgosi Mampuru Prison in Pretoria where he had been sent Thursday night, he had been unable to eat or take his medication, and had been “threatened by gangsters.”
Regional Magistrate Pravina Raghunandan adjourned court so that the 79-year-old Berland could take medication. But it was already 11:30 before the Friday hearing resumed because Berland’s attorney, Themba Langa, had not appeared at court.
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 allegations were made by female followers in Israel that he had sexually harassed 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.
There was confusion about why Langa arrived late. It appears that Berland’s followers were supposed to have paid him but failed to do so. Langa then got into an altercation with one of the followers – which can be viewed here – while a new attorney accompanied by an advocate was apparently summoned. However, it was finally agreed among the defense team and Berland’s followers that Langa would continue running the case.
This was followed by the reading into the record of an affidavit for the state from an Israeli official named as Avital Oren. The affidavit stated that Berland was wanted for questioning related to sexual assault and not for any political reasons, as he had claimed; that he had never worked in Nablus, also as claimed by Berland in his statement; that he has no Palestinian followers; and that Berland’s followers had entered Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, causing Palestinian anger, in October 2015.
During the lunch break, the locus of the action shifted into the corridor outside court 13 where prosecutor, Advocate Nerisha Naidoo, was hounded by Berland’s followers who begged her not to oppose giving bail to Berland – so that he could be free for Passover, the first night of which was about five hours away.
They said that if Berland was held in custody on the first night of Passover, he would die because he would not have access to kosher l’pesach food and would not eat or even drink water. Naidoo took the unprecedented step of phoning her superior in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in front of Berland’s followers to ask for permission to allow bail for Berland. Her request was turned down.
Magistrate Raghunandan tried to finish the bail hearing by asking Langa for proof of a fixed address for Berland and for documentary proof of his “status” in South Africa. Langa was unable produce any documentation showing that Berland had a fixed address nor was he able to provide any written evidence that Berland had applied for political asylum in South Africa, as claimed.
The magistrate then postponed the rest of the hearing to Tuesday, and said Berland would have to be held in custody over Passover. Langa said that Berland had a constitutional right to practise his religion – and that this could not be denied him.
Raghunandan – having accepted Berland’s complaints about maximum security prison Kgosi Mampuru – said that he would have to spend the first days of Passover at Johannesburg Prison’s “awaiting trial” facility, sarcastically called “Sun City” by locals.
Raghunandan ordered that Berland be kept in a single cell and that his wife and assistant may bring him kosher food as required at 8am and 5pm daily.