Goel Ratzon, the leader of an Israeli polygamist cult, was arrested this week in a widespread operation including police and welfare services.
The gag order on the case was removed Thursday, and it was cleared for publication that Ratzon is suspected of enslavement and a number of sexual offences, including rape.
Goel Ratzon in court (Photo: Mati Elmaliach)
In addition to Ratzon, police detained for questioning 17 of his "wives" and 37 of his children, nine of them below three years of age. Authorities are searching for more women and children under Ratzon's command, as earlier publications say he has altogether 32 wives and 89 offspring.
Two of the wives were arrested after being questioned on suspicion that they cooperated with Ratzon or witnessed his crimes. The others were transferred to homes for abused women along with their children.
Ratzon's arrest was remanded by 12 days, a decision he has appealed. His appeal was rejected on Friday. His interrogators say he is cooperating but says he doesn't "know what they want" from him.
He has denied all of the allegations against him, and says the women were free to come and go as they pleased. During his interrogation he also defended a book of rules and prohibitions for the women, which demands monetary fines for any infraction.
Ratzon says he has never fined any of the women, and that the book was intended to allow "everyone to live in peace". He added that women who did not sign the book of sanctions were not obligated to go by its rules.
"Many homes have rules, but they are not written down. Is that enslavement, too?" asks Ratzon's public defender, Shlomtzion Gabai. "This was not coercion. The state is coming in and saying these women were actually enslaved. If this is accepted, there will be many workplaces exposed to this legal clause."
Police follow arrest from street (Photo: Avi Cohen)
Ratzon is currently being kept away from cameras because officers believe he may try to convey secret messages to his wives, telling them to hurt themselves. "This is an affair the likes of which has never been seen in Israel," Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen said, and added that the case was being handled with the utmost proficiency.
Ratzon, 60, heads a cult of women he calls his wives despite never having officially married any of them. The tribe of women and children live in southern Tel Aviv. All of the women have Ratzon's name tattooed on their arms, and all of the children are named derivatives of Ratzon's name. Some of the women have threatened to commit suicide if any harm comes to Ratzon.
The authorities have known of Ratzon's cult since a complaint was filed against him in 2000, but at that time no clear laws existed on the issues at hand. Social workers who investigated the state of his children reported that they were well-dressed and fed, and that they did not appear to suffer from neglect.
One of the homes in the 'Ratzon complex' (Photo: Avi Cohen)
However social services were not satisfied that all was well with the "family", and six months ago succeeded in convincing one of the women to come forward and complain. The woman then returned to the Ratzon complex and acted as an agent of the police.
After the complaint was filed police found they could act on it, due to a law passed in 2006 which prohibits trafficking of humans and includes a clause on enslavement. The law allows for Ratzon's arrest on the basis of this clause. Police say Ratzon is the first to have been arrested on this charge. "No precedents for this exist in the world," one of the investigators said.
The enslavement charge required a certain stretching of the law, however. "This is slavery in the broadest sense of the word," an investigator told Ynet. "It's a psychological state in which a woman's life is defined by what Goel Ratzon says. She has no desires and no wishes, and there is also a book of rules with monetary sanctions. Threats and fear were an intrinsic part of the home, and not because the women have mental problems."
Ratzon has maintained an air of mystique over the years since he has been known to the public, conducting very few interviews. He has been known to attribute God-like powers to himself, and told reporter Nesli Barda that he was "perfect".
Ratzon has been collecting wives since 1993, according to reports, and a Yedioth Ahronoth interview from 2000 reveals that a "revelation" that occurred to him on that year convinced him to become a messiah for his women. He said his spirit had revealed "all of the secrets of the Torah" to him, and told him he was "righteous".
"I took them all," he said in a recorded interview from the same year. "Not the attractive ones, but the most innocent and poorly, as they say."
Yael Branovsky and Ilana Curiel contributed to this report