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US arrests members of extremist Jewish sect for kidnapping children

Rabbi Shlomo Hebrans adjusts his hat as he arrives at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 3, 1994. Helbrans faces trial on charges of kidnapping teenager Shai Fhima, then 13, in 1992. Fhima had been sent to Helbrans for tutoring prior to his bar m
AP Photo/J. Kirk Condyles

Four members of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Jewish cult Lev Tahor, based in Guatemala, have been arrested in New York on charges of kidnapping two children, federal prosecutors said Friday.

Aron Rosner, 45, who lives in Brooklyn, was arrested on December 23, a statement issued by the US Attorney's Office from the Southern District of New York said.

The other three -- Nachman Helbrans, 36, alleged to be the leader of the sect, and Mayer Rosner and Jacob Rosner, aged 42 and 20 respectively, all living in Guatemala -- were deported on Thursday from Mexico, where they had taken the children, and were arrested on their arrival in New York the same day.

They stand accused of organizing the kidnapping on December 8 of a 14-year-old girl and her brother, 12, in the village of Woodridge, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of New York.

Approximately six weeks earlier, their mother had fled the sect in Guatemala fearing for her family's safety.

She had previously been a "voluntary member" of the group which was founded by her father, but believed it would become even more extreme under its new leader, her brother Nachman Helbrans.

The four suspects devised a plan to kidnap the victims to take them back to Guatemala via Mexico and flew the children out from a small airport outside Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The children were recovered on Friday with the assistance of Mexican authorities in the town of Tenango del Air before being brought back to their mother.

Each of the suspects are charged with one count of kidnapping, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Nachman Helbrans took over the sect after the death of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Mexico last year, where he was reported to have drowned after being swept away by strong river currents during a ritual immersion ceremony.

The Lev Tahor group practices an extreme form of ultra-Orthodox Judaism with teachings that include veiling women from head to toe in black tunics.

Branded "the Jewish Taliban", the sect follows a strict interpretation of halakha Jewish laws, rejects the concept of Zionism, and contests the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

The senior Helbrans, who founded the sect in the 1980's left Israel in the 1990's as his movement was being investigated for allegedly collaborating with Islamist groups to compromise state security.

He fled to the US, where he spent two years in jail for kidnapping a boy who was sent to him for tutoring before his bar mitzvah. Helbrans claimed the boy to be a runaway.

Helbrans was to be deported back to Israel after his release from prison, but instead fled to Canada where he claimed and was granted refugee status on grounds that he would face persecution in Israel for his religious and political beliefs.

But he soon ran into trouble with the government in Canada, where welfare officials in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec claimed to have evidence of severe child abuse, including beatings, underage marriage, and illegal education.

The sect, estimated to include between 200 to 500 people including some 150 children, resettled in Guatemala in March 2014.

In September 2016, Guatemalan law enforcement raided a Lev Tahor compound at the request of Israeli authorities and arrested its leaders on suspicion of child abuse. The group then crossed into Mexico.

In April 2017, an Israeli court designated Lev Tahor a "dangerous cult" that is abusing children.

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