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Children in Lev Tahor face ‘daily suffering,’ former cult member says after raid

Children in the Lev Tahor cult face “daily suffering,” Yoel Levy, who used to be a member of the Lev Tahor extremist cult, told the Kan Public Broadcaster on Wednesday days after Mexican police raided the group’s compound.

“The children are abused daily, starved and married at a very young age. It’s daily suffering to live there,” Levy told the broadcaster.

An investigation by Mexican authorities found evidence that the cult members were involved in human trafficking, rape, drug trafficking and other serious offenses. Twenty-six members of the group, including two of its leaders, were detained in Friday’s raid, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

Levy, who said he was born and raised within the Jewish extremist cult, left approximately four years ago when he was only 16 years old.

Another interview conducted by Kan on Wednesday seemed to corroborate Levy’s assertions.

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“We found very strong evidence of things that are carried out there – underage marriages of girls at the age of 12 and boys at the age of 13, forcing them to have children immediately…and starvation,” David Tzur, a former senior police officer who aided in the investigation, told the broadcaster.

Yoel Levy, a former member of the Lev Tahor cult who escaped in 2018, May 21, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

Lev Tahor was founded in the 1980s by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans and has been described as the “Jewish Taliban” because of its extremist practices, including mandatory modest dress for women above the age of three and strict interpretations of Jewish dietary laws.

The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014, after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage.

A four-person Israeli team, which included former Mossad agents, aided Mexican police in conducting the investigation along with Friday’s raid, which freed a three-year-old boy born into the cult.

He was reunited with his father Yisrael Amir, who left the cult several years ago and had been trying to gain custody of his son ever since. The two landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, three members of the cult were sentenced by a US federal court for their role in a 2018 kidnapping, part of a case that has already led to the group’s unraveling and seen most of its leadership hauled away to prison.

Two members of the cult who are wanted by local police were not at the compound at the time of the raid and are believed to have left two days earlier. Five other detained members were taken to an immigration facility and are expected to be deported from Mexico in the coming days to unspecified countries.

בנו הקטן של ישראל עמיר, צעיר שברח מכת "לב טהור" – הושב לזרועותיו בעקבות הפשיטה במקסיקו, והם נחתו בארץ pic.twitter.com/673mM6Brxr

— ynet עדכוני (@ynetalerts) September 27, 2022

The remaining bulk of the group, which holds Israeli passports, has so far refused to return to Israel. While the Foreign Ministry said it believed Mexico would agree to deport the group to Israel, it stressed that it would try to avoid a violent confrontation and will continue seeking to convince the cult members to return to Israel willingly, adding that the group would remain in Mexican custody for the next three days.

An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, puts the cult’s membership at between 300 to 350 people, though its moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group were moving around the Balkans earlier this year.

Some members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018, and documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the cult swore allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Tobias Siegal, Luke Tress and The Associated Press contributed to this report.