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Lev Tahor family to appear in Guatemala court; spokesman calls attempts to retrieve children ‘hate crime’

TORONTO – A family from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Lev Tahor sect is set to appear in a Guatemalan court Monday afternoon to determine whether the family’s six children should be returned to Canadian authorities and put in foster care.

An Ontario judge has issued an apprehension order for the children, and eight others, to be placed in foster care. The Lev Tahor community has claimed parents have done nothing wrong and are the victims of persecution.

VIDEO GALLERY: 16X9’s in-depth investigation into Lev Tahor

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Guatemalan authorities say Canada asked them to keep watch on one of two Lev Tahor families that arrived there at the beginning of March.

The Lev Tahor members – six children and three adults – arrived in Guatemala legally on March 4 and have broken no laws in the country, according to Guatemalan immigration spokesman Fernando Lucero.

He said Canadian authorities requested the members be watched since the children were removed from Canada during an investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect.

READ MORE: Third Lev Tahor child hospitalized due to hunger strike: spokesperson

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.

“No charges have been laid,” Goldman told Global News. “Two years is more than enough time to try to do something against the community,” he said, referring to an investigation that opened in Quebec last year. “It’s never happened because there’s no evidence there; it’s just allegations  and rumours. … It’s obviously political pressure.”

The Lev Tahor families\’ settlement in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Kirk Neff / 16×9

Goldman believes pressure started from Israel two years ago, which is what he said prompted the investigation in Quebec.

“They didn’t find anything wrong. If you look into court documents, into reports—they didn’t find anything,” he added. This was perhaps an allusion to a letter from Montreal doctor Rachel Rubenstein saying she found skin irritations including a foot fungus after examining some of the children, but emphasized “unequivocally, that these problems do not reflect parental neglect or abuse.”

Goldman said the six children in Guatemala are all siblings, and that two more siblings are in a Canadian hospital, apparently on hunger strikes after being taken from their parents. The children cannot be identified.

READ MORE: How Canadian officials can retrieve Lev Tahor children from Guatemala

“These two families—the only crime they’ve committed is to belong to our community,” Goldman said. “What is the punishment if someone does not come to court in child protection? Private jets with police with intelligence people on board to grab people like animals? This is a much bigger crime than not to show up in a family court: This is a hate crime.”

Lucero said the surveillance applies only to a couple and their six children—aged between 15 years and 8 months—and not to a second family that is also in Guatemala.

He said they were arrested in Panajachel last week under suspicion of having committed a crime, but released after appearing before a judge on Friday.

Members of Lev Tahor walk through their former community in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec.

Kirk Neff / Global News

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.

About 200 members of the sect left Quebec for Chatham, Ontario last year and several members 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 after they were apprehended in Calgary and they were returned to Ontario.

The group has denied all allegations of mistreatment.

With files from Global News reporter Anna Mehler Paperny

©2014Shaw Media and The Canadian Press