Lev Tahor: Jewish sect leaders arrested in Mexico jungle raid freed

Leaders of a Jewish sect arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and sex crimes in Mexico have been freed.

Their lawyer said the pair, who are foreign citizens, were released on Thursday night for lack of evidence.

It followed a mass breakout of about 20 members of the sect held in a government facility after the raid on their jungle base last week.

The sect, Lev Tahor, is known for extremist practices and imposing a strict regime on its followers.

It advocates child marriage, inflicts harsh punishments even for minor transgressions and requires women and girls as young as three years old to completely cover up with robes.

A source who was involved in the operation against the group told the BBC the decision to free the pair undermined “the impressive and untainted legal work accomplished by the Attorney General’s Office and the police prior to and during the raid”.

The two men had been under arrest since the raid on 23 September. Israel’s foreign ministry identified them as an Israeli and a Canadian citizen.

The lawyer, Yaret Jiménez, told Spanish news agency Efe that her clients were “100% acquitted” of the alleged offences.

Ms Jiménez suggested the accusations against her clients were used as a pretext by the authorities to carry out the raid in order to remove a child from the compound.

A three-year-old boy was released in the raid and reunited with his father, a former sect member. The pair flew back to his father’s home in Israel on Tuesday.

The operation was the result of two years of secret activity which began when the man, Yisrael Amir, appealed to a former member of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, for help to get his son out.

The group’s compound, 11 miles (17.5km) north of Tapachula in Chiapas state, was raided after months of investigation and surveillance involving Mexican and Guatemalan authorities and a private four-man team from Israel including former Mossad and Shin Bet agents.

About 20 sect members re moved from the compound were held at a government facility in the western town of Huixtla while authorities decided what to do with them.

However, they broke out in dramatic scenes on Wednesday night, clambering over a guard who had fallen trying to stop them, and disappearing into the night. It is unclear where they have gone.

The sect’s leadership in Guatemala has been at the centre of a kidnapping case since 2018. Nine of the sect’s members have been charged, four of whom have so far been convicted.

Lev Tahor – Hebrew for Pure of Heart – was formed in Israel in 1988 and is thought to number up to 350 members, according to an ex-members group.

It has been forced to move from country to country in recent years after coming under scrutiny from local authorities. It is currently spread between Israel, the US, North Macedonia, Morocco, Mexico and Guatemala. Between 70 and 80 members are still in Guatemala.

While the group is often described as ultra-Orthodox, it follows its own sets of rules and has been declared a “dangerous cult” by an Israeli court.

Its leaders have denied breaking local laws and say the group is being targeted because of its beliefs.

BBC

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