Guatemala judge rules Lev Tahor children can stay

A family court judge in Guatemala is allowing nine members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect to stay in the country.

Six children and three adults left Canada two weeks ago during a pending court case in Ontario

Members of Lev Tahor moved from Quebec to Ontario in November. Some have since moved to Guatemala. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

A family court judge in Guatemala is allowing nine members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect to stay in the country.

Six children and their parents appeared before a judge on Monday, after police picked up the family members three days earlier at a hotel in the tourist town of Panajachel.

The group fled their homes in Chatham, Ont. about two weeks ago  while awaiting a court ruling in Ontario. Some Lev Tahor members appealed a case where an Ontario judge upheld a Quebec court order to have 13 children places in foster care.

Uriel Goldman, a spokesman for the Lev Tahor group in Canada, told CBC News that the judge in the Guatemalan town of Solola decided there was no reason to send the children back to Canada.

Family under surveillance

Authorities in Guatemala agreed to a request from Canadian officials to keep tabs on one of two Lev Tahor families that fled 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 picked up 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.

Goldman said two families were ordered to appear in family court in the Guatemalan town of Solola on Monday.

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, and were aware of the situation.

Court Order

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 after they were apprehended in Calgary and they were returned to Ontario.

The group has denied all allegations of mistreatment.

With files from Canadian Press