A raid on a residential complex in Jerusalem has uncovered a "cult"-like group where dozens of women and children were being held against their will – including some girls who had their fingers placed into fires to “make them understand what hell is,” Israeli police say.
The operation, which was carried out in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood Monday, resulted in the arrests of the alleged ringleader and his eight female accomplices. They are suspected of isolating some 50 women in the complex, along with children ranging in age from 1-5, and keeping them out of contact with their families and the outside world.
“At this stage, Israel Police along with additional investigating bodies, are focused on providing an initial response to the treatment of the minors as well as investigating the conditions of the residential complex,” it said in a statement. “All of the suspects that were taken into custody are being investigated on suspicion of possession of slavery.”
The arrests coincided with Israeli police releasing footage of the compound's interior crammed with closely spaced triple-decker bunk beds. It was operating under the guise of a women's seminary, they added, with Superintendent Isaac Simon saying the victims were held in “very cramped conditions and difficult sanitary conditions.”
Police told the Jerusalem Post that those inside “were taught to disassociate themselves from their parents, their families and their friends”.
During “lessons of modesty," police added, “they would put the girls’ fingers into the fire to make them understand what hell is.”
People who were around the facility also told the newspaper that they would see the girls there sleeping on mattresses on the roof, sometimes even in the rain.
“We tried to call them, but they did not answer,” the Jerusalem Post quoted one as saying, noting that a cover later was placed over the roof “so we would not see what was happening.”
Before launching the raid Monday, police led a two-month undercover investigation where they spoke with women who had escaped the group. The raid was carried out in coordination with the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults.
“We know that the women and children were there for several months inside the home,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. “We know that he took their money away from them and was holding them against their will.
But the 60-year-old man arrested and accused of being the ringleader of what police are describing as a "cult" is denying the accusations.
“The rabbi claims there had been a dispute between the women in the seminar and their family members,” his lawyer reportedly told Ynet news.
Israel's Channel 12 also reported that he had previously been arrested at least twice on similar charges, and denied any wrongdoing during his arraignment.
Fox News’ Talia Kaplan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.