13 years after bolting, 6 since arrest, Malka Leifer extradited to Australia

Former Haredi school principal on her way back to Melbourne, where she faces 74 charges of child sex abuse

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Former principal Malka Leifer, wanted in Australia for child sex abuse crimes, seen at the Jerusalem District Court, February 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Former principal Malka Leifer, wanted in Australia for child sex abuse crimes, seen at the Jerusalem District Court, February 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Israeli authorities extradited alleged sex abuser Malka Leifer to Australia early Monday morning, nearly 13 years after she fled Melbourne as allegations against her were coming to light and after a six-year legal process during which a court determined that she had feigned mental illness in order to avoid facing justice.

Not unlike the manner in which the former school principal was ushered out of Melbourne by board members of the Adass Israel Haredi girls’ school in 2008, the Israel Prisons Service operation that transferred her from Neve Tirza women’s prison to Ben Gurion Airport took place in the middle of the night.

Leifer was photographed climbing up a metal staircase onto a plane that will take her to Australia via Frankfurt, Germany.

The extradition was confirmed to The Times of Israel by Leifer’s lawyer Nick Kaufman, as well as by Israeli and Australian officials.

Kaufman lamented the fact that “photographs of [Leifer] being led in handcuffs and legcuffs were leaked to the press,” saying Israeli authorities had been “expected to ensure the secrecy of the date of transfer and to ensure maximum respect for Ms. Leifer’s dignity until she left Israeli jurisdiction.”

Israeli authorities went through with the extradition even as the government was moving forward with plans to close Ben Gurion Airport almost completely, amid fears over fast-spreading coronavirus variants entering the country. A decision was made to extradite Leifer nonetheless, with Jerusalem evidently recognizing how serious the issue was to Canberra. Senior government officials and prominent Jewish groups there have sharply criticized the drawn-out nature of the proceedings against Leifer, straining the Jewish state’s relations with the country.

Dassi Erlich, who along with her two sisters Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper has accused Leifer of sexually abusing them when they were students at Adass, tweeted that the alleged pedophile was on her way back to Australia.

The Magen advocacy group for child abuse victims released a statement expressing relief that the Israeli chapter in the Leifer case had come to a close after over 70 court dates.

“As a community, we must continue to take a stand and fight for victims of sexual abuse, that the State of Israel not be used as a safe haven for sex offenders, and that this gross manipulation of the justice system may never happen again,” the organization said.

Magen, previously known as Jewish Community Watch, aided the case against Leifer by hiring private investigators to disprove her claims of mental unfitness. They filmed Leifer roaming through her home town of Emmanuel in the West Bank with no apparent difficulty in 2018, after a court had accepted her legal team’s defense that she was mentally incapacitated and unable to be extradited. The findings led to the Interpol operation in which she was rearrested.

VoiCSA, an Israel-based organization combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, said it was “an incredible day for justice.”

Israel had 60 days to place Leifer on a plane. Then-justice minister Avi Nissenkorn signed the extradition order against her 40 days ago, a day after the Supreme Court rejected the defense’s appeal against the Jerusalem District Court’s decision in favor of extradition.

“All who seek to evade justice shall know that they will not find a place of refuge in Israel,” justices Anat Baron, Isaac Amit, and Ofer Grosskopf wrote in a unanimous decision.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Frustration in Australia over the saga peaked last year when allegations came to light that Israel’s then-deputy health minister, Yaakov Litzman, was pressuring state psychiatrists to diagnose Leifer as mentally unfit to face justice. The accusations came after the physician assigned to the case changed his assessment three times regarding Leifer’s mental state. Police have recommended that Litzman be indicted for his alleged interference in the case.

Leifer left Israel to take a job at Adass Israel in Melbourne in 2000. When allegations of sexual abuse against her began to surface eight years later, members of the school board purchased the mother of eight a plane ticket back to Israel, allowing her to escape before charges were filed.

It took until 2014 for her to be arrested as part of an Interpol operation, but hearings were postponed due to claims by Leifer’s defense team of sudden bouts of a debilitating condition. A Jerusalem court suspended proceedings in 2016, deeming her mentally unfit to stand trial. She was rearrested in 2018 after being filmed appearing to lead a fully functional life.

After over a year’s worth of additional hearings, Jerusalem District Court judge Judge Chana Lomp concluded that the evidence regarding Leifer’s health was still inconclusive and ordered a board of psychiatric experts to determine whether the former principal had been faking mental incompetence.

Last February, the panel filed its conclusion that Leifer had been faking, leading Lomp to make the same determination last May. That ruling was followed by the judge’s September decision to green-light the extradition sought by Australia.

Kaufman, the defense attorney, told the Times of Israel last month that he would seek to have Leifer serve any prison service in Israel if she is to be convicted in Australia, citing concerns that the 54-year-old would be unable to observe her religious lifestyle there.

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