After 6 years and 68 court dates, Malka Leifer extradition proceedings begin

Even though judge concluded that alleged child sex abuser wanted in Australia was feigning mental illness, proceedings could still face further delay

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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

Nearly six years since her initial arrest, and after 68 court dates, the Jerusalem District Court was set to convene for an extradition hearing on Monday morning for Malka Leifer, who is wanted in Australia on 74 counts of child sex abuse.

The hearing was expected to be largely procedural given that the court already ruled in May that the former principal of the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne has been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition and is competent to face justice.

However, the proceedings — which dragged on for years as Leifer convinced the justice system in Israel that she was too debilitated to face charges in Canberra — could still see further delays, including ongoing Supreme Court appeals, before she could finally find herself on a plane.

Only one session has been scheduled so far for the extradition hearing, but the prosecution believes that a subsequent hearing might be required, a legal official told The Times of Israel.

The prosecution is to open up Monday’s hearing with a roughly 30-minute statement that will include graphic excerpts from the local Australian police reports filed by sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Ellie Sapper in 2011 against Leifer, a source with knowledge of the proceedings said.

(From L-R) Ellie Sapper, Nicole Meyer and Dassi Erlich pose for a photo in Jerusalem on November 29, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Time of Israel)

The defense is then expected to respond with a far lengthier rebuttal. Leifer’s attorney Nick Kaufman — who has joined the growing list of lawyers hired to represent the alleged serial pedophile — hinted during a Supreme Court hearing on Sunday that he plans to argue that his client did not sexually exploit her students because some of the alleged incidents took place when the girls were near the consenting age of 18.

Kaufman told reporters after the Supreme Court hearing that both Australia and Israel would need to prove that the alleged victims did not consent to the sexual acts that were carried out with the principal — a peculiar assertion given that the alleged abuse began when the former students were as young as 15 and Leifer was a figure with authority over them.

Moreover, the Israeli court system is not trying the crimes that took place in Australia, rather only determining whether Leifer can be extradited to face justice there.

If the court approves Leifer’s extradition, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn will have to sign off on the order. However, both the court decision and Nissenkorn’s stamp of approval can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which is already hearing other challenges against the proceedings.

The Supreme Court hearing Sunday addressed the latest appeal filed by the defense, demanding access to minutes from a series of meetings held by Leifer’s accusers as well as Australian politicians with Israeli lawmakers, including former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, regarding the case.

Following the accusers’ sit-down with Shaked, the former justice minister said she would sign off on Leifer’s extradition if it is ordered by the court. Kaufman, a prominent British-born lawyer specializing in international criminal law, argued that Shaked’s remarks represented an act of interference by the political echelon in the court system.

(L-R) Malka Leifer’s attorneys Yehuda Fried and Nick Kaufman wait in the Supreme Court for the hearing to start, with Leifer’s relatives sitting behind them on July 19, 2020. (Ittay Flescher/Plus61J)

Supreme Counrt Justice Daphna Barak-Erez did not appear to accept many of Kaufman’s arguments on Sunday, repeatedly calling them “irrelevant.”

Leifer herself appeared at Sunday’s hearing for the first time in years, albeit by Zoom.

Ultimately, the judge rejected the appeal late Sunday night.

The defense has also appealed the May decision deeming Leifer fit for an extradition hearing, and the Supreme Court is slated to reconvene on the matter on July 29.

In a statement ahead of Monday’s extradition hearing, Erlich said, “We have been waiting for this moment since 2011 when we signed our police statements.

“Today our story and details of the sexual abuse will be aired in an Israeli court for the first time. This is equally validating and terrifying,” she added.

Victims rights advocate Manny Waks (right) holds up a phone from which Malka Leifer’s alleged victims Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elie Sapper speak to reporters at the Jerusalem District Court on May 26, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“Validating to finally have a voice in a six-year court process focused on Leifer’s mental health without any consideration for ours. Terrifying to know that details of our lives will be exposed in way that we can’t control,” Erlich said.

In 2000, Leifer left Israel to take a job at Adass. 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 avoid being charged.

She was arrested in Israel in 2014 after Australia filed for extradition, but a Jerusalem court suspended the 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.

Leifer was allegedly aided by former health minister Yaakov Litzman, who police last year recommended be indicted for pressuring psychiatrists in his office to change the medical opinions submitted to the court to deem her unfit for trial.

After over a year’s worth of additional hearings, 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 has been faking mental incompetence. In February, the panel filed its conclusion that Leifer has been faking, leading Lomp to make the same determination in May.

The nature of the delays in the Leifer case have been a source of strain in Israel’s relations with both Australia’s government and the Jewish community there as well.

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