Canada asked Guatemala to keep tabs on Lev Tahor family, official says

Members of the Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish sect walk down a street in Chatham, Ont., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Members of the Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish sect walk down a street in Chatham, Ont., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Romina Maurino and Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Authorities in Guatemala agreed to a request from Canadian officials to keep tabs on one of two Lev Tahor families that left Canada earlier this month, a Guatemalan immigration spokesman said Monday.

The spokesman, Fernando Lucero, said the members of the Jewish sect were in Guatemala legally and had broken no laws in the country.

“The alert was given from Canada to keep the family under surveillance,” Lucero told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.

“No crime has been committed in Guatemala. We’re waiting to see if there is a warrant from Interpol.”

The surveillance relates only to a couple and their six children — aged between 15 years and 8 months — not a second family that is also in Guatemala, he said.

According to Lucero, the family entered the country legally on March 4 and Canadian authorities requested the members be watched because the children were removed from Canada during an investigation.

They were initially arrested in Panajachel because they were under suspicion of having committed a crime, he said.

They appeared before a judge on Friday but were released because there was no evidence they had done anything wrong.

Uriel Goldman, a spokesman for the Lev Tahor group in Canada, said two families were ordered to appear in family court in the Guatemalan town of Solola on Monday.

Lucero said he was waiting to see what emerged from the court proceedings.

It was unclear why immigration authorities in Guatemala were only watching one of the families.

Goldman, however, has said none of the sect members had done anything wrong.

“For these two families, there are no concerns about anything with the parents and the kids,” he said in an interview from Chatham, Ont.

A spokesman for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said consular officials in Guatemala had been in communication with local authorities on the issue.

A Quebec court ordered late last year that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care.

Child-welfare authorities in Quebec alleged issues related to hygiene, health and that the children weren’t being educated according to the provincial curriculum.

About 200 members of the sect — 114 of them children — settled in Chatham, Ont., last year after suddenly leaving Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que.

At least two Lev Tahor families then left Canada for Guatemala earlier this month in the face of child custody hearings.

Two other sect families with nine members attempted to reach Guatemala but were intercepted in Trinidad and returned to Canada.

Child welfare officials also took two minors into custody in Calgary and were returned them to Ontario.

Joel Helbrans, 21, a lifelong member of the sect, said authorities had “kidnapped” one of them — a 17-year-old married mother and were keeping her incommunicado.

The father of three also said he did not know what had happened to five females and possibly a male who apparently were taken to hospital last week after going on a hunger strike to press demands to be returned to their families.

The group has denied all allegations of mistreatment.

“No one could say the kids are abused,” Helbrans said from Chatham.

© The Canadian Press, 2014