15 Nov 2010

Israeli polygamist cult leader arrested on suspicion of rape, enslavement and indecent assault of minors

Haaretz - Israel January 15, 2010

Police zero in on 1 of 17 'wives' in cult leader rape probe

By Yaniv Kubovich | Haaretz Correspondent

The investigation of a suspected cult leader accused of raping and enslaving scores of women took a dramatic turn on Friday after one of his alleged victims gave indications that she may agree to cooperate with authorities.

The head of the cult, Goal Ratzon, was arrested on Monday on suspicions of rape, enslavement, and indecent assault of minors, police announced on Thursday.

Self-styled spiritual 'guru' Goel Ratzon.

Police also detained Ratzon's 17 female companions whom Ratzon considers his wives (polygamy is outlawed in Israel) and 38 of his 60 children for questioning.

A., one of the 17 women, gave a statement to investigators Friday morning. Police came away from the session encouraged that A. may be willing to step forward as the central prosecution witness in the case against Ratzon.

Prosecutors hope to issue an indictment against Ratzon within the next 10 days.

Police suspect that Ratzon imposed a harsh and unforgiving regime on his household, which had a rule book complete with punishments. Police say this is evidence of enslavement. Some of the prohibitions in the book include interrupting Ratzon, idling, arguing with him or with each other, and laughing indoors.

Police started an undercover investigation of Ratzon in June 2009, when one of his wives came to a welfare office and said the household was the scene of criminal acts, including rape and enslavement. Police opened the investigation under the 2006 Slavery Law, legislated to combat traffic in women. The decision to launch the investigation had to be made by State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, since dozens of minors were apparently involved.

One of Ratzon's wives cooperated with the police, providing them with the evidence necessary to carry out the arrest. Police devoted substantial resources to the investigation, including audio and video surveillance placed inside his homes.

During police questioning of A., investigators played surveillance tapes said to be of Ratzon committing the crimes of which he is accused in his apartment.

Police also played for A. video footage and pictures of Ratzon while committing the alleged acts, prompting her to burst into tears.

"After what I saw [on the tapes], I'm done with being gullible," A. said from her home on Friday. "I can't bear the thought that these things happened. I personally did not know that these things were done until the voices on the tape were played for me. I'm finished with Goel."

Tel Aviv District Court rejected Ratzon's appeal of the Magistrate's Court extension of his remand by 12 days.

"Ratzon was arrested after a lengthy period of undercover investigation and he is accused of crimes which range from holding women in enslavement, rape, extortion, and indecent acts against minors," the court said in its reasoning on Friday. "It suffices to look at the evidence presented thus far in order to understand the picture that emerges of a man who physically and psychologically took control of women who live in his domicile and children who live with those same women."

A.'s statements are in stark contrast to those made by Ratzon's other women following his arrest. "This [arrest] is an act of vengeance against the family and there is no shortage of people who wanted to avenge," said M., another of Ratzon's 17 companions. "There are quite a few people who do not like our lifestyle and make up stories about us."

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Haaretz - Israel January 15, 2010

Experts: Polygamist ran 'family' as a cult

By Dana Weiler-Pollak

Police say Goel Ratzon (60) has been cohabiting with 17 women in several flats in south Tel Aviv but he says the number is more than twice that.

He is not married to any of them but they see themselves as his wives and police say he fathered at least 38 children with his multiple partners. All the childrens' names are variants of Goel, which means "savior."

The enormous family - which calls itself a cooperative but is seen by others as a cult - live in several apartments and compounds, with Goel Ratzon moving between them. The women, many of whom work and support their children, worship Ratzon and each bears a tattoo of his face.

Some of the women say their lives would be meaningless without him. Ratzon says they love him because he helps them.

In February last year, Channel 10 TV screened a documentary on Ratzon and his wives. A few days after the broadcast one of the women tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants and was rushed to hospital by Ratzon and some of the other wives.

In September, Maariv published what it said was the family's rule book, which covered the children's education, communication within the house, household management and more. Transgression of the rules was to be punished by fines of up to NIS 7,000.

After covertly observing the community for months, Police yesterday arrested Ratzon on suspicion of enslavement, rape, extortion and other offenses.

"The work of the police and the welfare services on this case would have been so much easier if Israel had specific anti-cult legislation," says Dr Habi Zohar, a specialist on sects who counsels families who have lost members to cult activity. Zohar also advises the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, which collected testimonies from Goel Ratzon's wives over the past year.

"Ratzon's group is a cult,there are no two ways about it," Zohar said. "Dozens of cults in Israel are engaged in psychological, spiritual and emotional exploitation just as bad as Ratzon's but the state can't intervene until one of the victims complains."

Zohar defines a cult as a group with a leader who dictates an agenda, an ideology or a philosophy. The leader exercises complete control over a member's behavior and thoughts. In many cults members are recruited through brainwashing or religious conversion. Such a group would be likely to suffer financial, physical, spiritual and emotional exploitation, with all members, including children, completely subject to the leader's rules and whims. All those characteristics appear to be present in the case of Ratzon and his wives.

Zohar warns that some of the women or the children may attempt to hurt themselves if Ratzon is separated from them.

"I'm not sure if there will be mass suicide, but instances of self-harm, among both women and children are certainly a possibility," he said. "They may also try to attack people perceived as enemies, such as welfare workers and journalists."

Neighbors of the women described them as quiet and reserved.

"They never say hello, and always bow their heads if you go by," one neighbor said. "They tried to stay as isolated as they could but the children seemed well-treated."

She said the women would share parenting chores.

"One mother would take seven kids to school, then go to work. Another would stay at home with the smaller ones. When Goel would arrive he would get out of his car like he was a king, and they would run behind him carrying bags, clothes, even furniture."

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The Jerusalem Post - January 14, 2010

Court rejects TA cult leader's remand appeal


The Tel Aviv District Court on Friday rejected an appeal filed by self-styled spiritual 'guru' Goel Ratzon over the extension of his remand.

Ratzon was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of "enslaving" members of his group and raping several of the 17 women with whom he was romantically involved.

His remand was extended on Wednesday by 12 days at a Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court session held behind closed doors.

The 59-year-old fathered an estimated 60 children with the 17 women, including around 40 who are still minors.

A gag order on the case was lifted midday on Thursday.

Ratzon was arrested during police raids on two addresses in the Hatikva neighborhood, following a seven-month undercover investigation.

A woman who had lived with Ratzon before leaving the cult is widely believed to have tipped off the authorities and set the investigation in motion. According to some reports, she was asked to return to one of the the cult leader's homes by police and to act as an undercover agent.

Ratzon's defense attorney, Shlomzion Gabai, said her client suspected that a former insider acted as a source on behalf of the authorities.

In addition to rape and enslavement, police said Ratzon was under suspicion of inciting the women to commit suicide.

Two women were also arrested - one on suspicion of physical abuse, and the other on suspicion of failing to report abuses to the authority.

Ratzon's 17 partners were detained for questioning, and later taken with their children into temporary protective care by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.

Police have refused to disclose whether the children were victims of sexual offenses, saying the investigation is still under way.

Ratzon is cooperating with police and has answered questions, telling them everything that went on in his homes took place "of their own free will."

Sources say he is trying to present a "business-as-usual" demeanor during questioning.

"We have managed to gather a great deal of evidence regarding the offenses of holding people under conditions of enslavement and rape," Dep.-Cmdr. Shlomi Michael, head of Tel Aviv police's Central Unit, said during a press conference on Thursday.

"Three days ago, the open phase of the investigation began," he said. "The Central Unit, together with other police units, arrested the suspect, and detained 17 women and 38 children - nine of them toddlers."

Michael added that the officers who ran the investigation "were exposed to very difficult scenes, despite their long experience."

One detective broke down in tears in the course of the investigation, Michael said.

The investigation was opened by Tel Aviv police's Central Unit last June, when welfare services received information regarding alleged "sexual offenses within the family," police said.

An unprecedented inter-organizational effort was launched, involving dozens of police detectives, 150 social services employees, and Central District state prosecutors, who concluded sufficient evidence was available to prosecute Ratzon.

Despite a number of media reports claiming that police were upset with social services for failing to act sooner to disband Ratzon's cult, police strenuously denied making such accusations.

"We would like to stress that the investigation was carried out in close and full cooperation with social services and state prosecutors, and police have no links to the various claims being floated in the media," Tel Aviv police said.

Police prioritized the investigation above other cases and were allocated nearly unlimited funds out of fear for the safety of the women and children, a source close to the investigation said this week.

Ratzon had long been the target of suspicion by authorities, and welfare services are facing intense criticism for not acting sooner to disband the group.

But the women who lived with Ratzon did so on a voluntary basis, some sources say, and both police and welfare services believe they were powerless to act until new anti-enslavement legislation was introduced in 2006.

Previous checks on children from Ratzon's group, carried out by social services at kindergartens, found that they were well-dressed, well-fed, and equipped for school, a fact social services believed ruled out an intrusive investigation until now.

An amendment to the anti-enslavement law, which prohibits holding a person "in conditions of slavery, including sexual slavery," enabled the authorities to act this week. The offense carries a 16-year maximum prison sentence.

The authorities are interpreting "slavery" in this case to mean "psychological slavery," resulting in total control by Ratzon of the women and children who lived with him in various apartment complexes.

Armed with the new legislation, sources said, it was possible for the authorities to act against Ratzon, since the evidence allegedly shows that the women had "no choice" but to comply with his demands.

The undercover investigation made use of electronic monitoring equipment.

Detectives mapped out where each woman and child slept in Ratzon's Tel Aviv housing complexes.

Social services are now highly concerned over how the women will react to the arrests and the sudden manner in which their routine was disrupted. One source described the women as "being in a state of mourning."

Social workers must now decide which women can be released to the care of family members together with their children. Other women may be permitted to care for their children only under the supervision of professionals. Some women could be deemed to pose too great a risk to their children, requiring separation. One woman is suspected by police of collaborating with Ratzon in a manner that jeopardized the safety of minors.

Authorities see the first stage of the operation to disband the cult as a success, but say that the process of rehabilitating the women and children will be long and arduous.

"This is a human and social phenomenon that is unacceptable in any civilized country," one source familiar with the investigation said. "The safety of the women and children was at risk.

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The Jerusalem Post - January 14, 2010

'Law prevented Social Services action'


As Israel Police lifted the gag order on the arrest of suspected cult leader Goel Ratzon, Ministry of Welfare and Social Services officials maintained that for the past decade they were powerless to prosecute the man who was clearly the husband of 17 women and fathered approximately 60 children with them.

Over the past decade, social workers in the Tel Aviv district claim they watched Ratzon's growing clan and responded to several calls for help, but after each incident was resolved the authorities could not find sufficient grounds for his arrest on a charge strong enough to break up his unusual family.

Because Ratzon was not legally married to all the women, the authorities could not arrest him for polygamy, which is illegal in Israel. In addition, all social services' checks on Ratzon's children, which included interviews with school and kindergarten teachers, found them to be well-dressed, fed and cared for. The children range in age, including nine under the age of three.

It was only a call to social welfare services last July from a woman claiming to be held by Ratzon against her will that allowed the authorities to start building a case based on anti-enslavement legislation introduced in 2006 as part of human trafficking laws.

"This case is completely different from anything else we've seen in Israel," said one social services source.

Indeed, the 150 social workers selected to assist the police with its undercover operation over the past seven months had to refer to cases of cults and slavery from around the world, such as David Koresh's cult in Waco, Texas.

Social workers were carefully selected by the ministry to deal with this case and all have been alerted to the possibility that some of the women could try to commit suicide now that their leader has been taken away.

The suicide pact was highlighted last year in a Channel 10 documentary made about the family. Sources told The Jerusalem Post this week that social workers watched the film hundreds of times to become thoroughly familiar with the women they were about to rescue.

Now that the cult has been disbanded, authorities say the real work is in assisting the women and children involved in moving on from the life they had with Ratzon and to help them resume normal lives.

The ministry said that it was allocating a separate budget to deal with the ongoing treatment and rehabilitation counseling the women would need.

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The Jerusalem Post - January 14, 2010

A cult leader's rule book

by Yaakov Lappin | THE JERUSALEM POST

Goel Ratzon maintained tight control over every aspect of life in his housing complexes.

He distributed a rule book to the women in which he laid out his laws and the financial penalties that would result from any transgressions.

Below are a few of the rules.

- Any woman who speaks in a pretentious manner to another woman will be fined NIS 2,000.

- No woman will ask Ratzon where he is going and what he is doing. A violation of this law will result in NIS 200.

- Idle chatter is strictly forbidden, and conversations between the women can only take place in the living room. This law carried an NIS 2000 penalty.

- Arguments between the women will result in each party to the dispute being fined NIS 2,000.

- Laziness and sitting around the house will be met with an NIS 200 fine.

- No woman must ask another woman where she is going, unless it is to ask for groceries. A violation of this law will result in a NIS 200 fine.

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