Fugitive Rabbi Nabbed After Two Years on the Run

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, a prominent member of the Breslov movement, fled Israel in 2012 after being accused of sex offences.

Hadar Cohen

Fugitive ultra-Orthodox rabbi Eliezer Berland was arrested in Amsterdam on Thursday, almost two years after he fled Israel to avoid arrest for sex crimes.

Berland, a leading member of the Breslov Hassidic movement and founder of the Shuvu Banim yeshiva, was detained at Amsterdam airport on an international arrest warrant, according to various news sources. He had arrived on a flight from South Africa, where he had been living since April.

Berland also spent lengthy periods in Italy, Morocco and Zimbabwe during his 23 months on the run. He was accused of sexual abuse by a number of his female followers, including a 15-year-old girl, in 2012.

Shortly after he fled Israel, his son, grandson and several other followers were arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering involving the sect's finances.

The Israeli Justice Ministry confirmed Berland's arrest on Thursday night. It said that he was arrested on an international warrant at Israel's request and that Israel intended requesting his extradition to Israel to stand trial. The ministry noted that both Holland and Israel are signatories to the European Extradition Treaty.

Throughout his peregrinations, Berland was accompanied by a dedicated group of some 200 supporters and assisted by a wider network, which assisted him in avoiding capture on a number of occasions.

He apparently left Johannesburg on Wednesday night. One of his supporters told The Star newspaper that he was on his way to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Ukraine.”

It is believed Berland’s decision to flee came after Johannesburg police cornered him on Monday night in an attempt to arrest him. He escaped in a getaway car, driving on sidewalks and knocking over pot plants in the process.

It was not the first time Berland had evaded the police. He was officiating at a wedding in Johannesburg a few months ago when South Africa's elite police squad, known as the Hawks, pounced.

“This man surrounded himself with a group of about 12 people or more," said Hawk’s spokesman Paul Ramaloko. "They were all wearing black coats and looked the same. The way things were, we would have arrested the wrong person.

"We asked people there where he was and they said he was not there. It is not easy to arrest him, but our guys don’t sleep - they are constantly looking for him,”

South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn said: “From what we understand, he is a fugitive from Israeli law, where he is accused of sexual crimes. As law-abiding citizens of South Africa, we encourage him to turn himself over to the South African law enforcement authorities so that he can be returned to Israel to stand justice.”