Accused sex abuser Malka Leifer refuses to appear before key psychiatric panel

Defense demands judge alone decide if the ex-principal is mentally fit for extradition to Australia, claims enough evidence exists and court-ordered board can’t be trusted

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)

Malka Leifer’s attorneys informed the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday that their client would not appear before the court-ordered psychiatric panel to determine whether she is feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition to Australia, where she faces 74 charges of sexual assault.

In a letter to the court, Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried said they could not allow their client to cooperate with a panel, which they had opposed from the start.

Last month, Jerusalem District Court Judge Chana Lomp ruled that the evidence against Leifer was inconclusive and therefore a board of psychiatric experts would be appointed to determine whether the former principal of Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne has been faking mental incompetence to avoid being sent back to Australia for a sex abuse trial.

Both the prosecution and defense opposed the appointment of a new panel, with both arguing that sufficient evidence had been submitted to reach a verdict. The state has relied on the legal opinions of three district psychiatrists who determined that Leifer is mentally fit to face justice. Leifer’s attorneys, meanwhile, cited testimony from prison doctors, who said that the 52-year-old takes the highest dosage of anti-psychosis medication. They also flew in several attorneys from around the world to argue that Leifer is not mentally competent.

(From L-R) Malka Leifer’s attorneys Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried speak to reporters at the Jerusalem District Court on September 23, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The defense argued that by deeming the evidence against their client to be inconclusive, Lomp’s ruling had in effect discarded the possibility that the suspect has been faking.

The defense then filed a motion to have Leifer released from prison for the remainder of the legal proceedings against her. The Jerusalem District Court agreed to free her to house arrest, but that ruling was overturned earlier this month by the Supreme Court.

Since the Supreme Court decision, the defense petitioned the High Court of Justice to have the proceedings against Leifer halted altogether. The top legal body rejected the petition last week.

In their Tuesday letter to the court, Gabay and Fried asked that Lomp simply reach a decision on her own regarding Leifer’s mental state without the recommendation of the panel.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a prosecution official suggested that the defense’s letter might be a “media stunt” — a claim that the defense flatly denied.

Another prosecution official told The Times of Israel that she was not familiar with any other case in which the defense “blatantly disregarded” a court decision. She said the prosecution would wait to hear the judge’s response to the defense’s letter before taking any steps of its own.

Last week, Tel Aviv District Psychiatrist Uzi Shai informed the court that he had appointed Northern District chief psychiatrist Amir Ben Efraim, Haifa District chief psychiatrist Aline Rozensweig and Haifa District deputy psychiatrist Ilanit Isaacs to the court-ordered panel to provide a recommendation.

The defense had demanded that the medical board be made up of private psychiatrists, claiming that public servants would more quickly bow to state and media pressure.

Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes in 2016 (Facebook)

The court had agreed to the state’s request that Jerusalem District chief psychiatrist Jacob Charnes be barred from any involvement in the panel despite the court being under his jurisdiction. Charnes has changed his opinion on Leifer’s mental fitness three times, dragging out the proceedings that have lasted over five years. Last July, police recommended Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over suspicions that he pressured officials in his office, including Charnes, to prevent Leifer from being extradited.

Also in July, a legal official told The Times of Israel that a separate psychiatric panel was gearing up to reach a conclusion that Leifer had been feigning mental illness. This court-ordered medical board had been meeting every six months to determine whether to continue providing her psychiatric treatment.

That panel had “hinted” it would rule against Leifer at its last meeting, but had asked for additional documents from the defense before making a final decision, according to the legal official. However, the panel never reconvened after Leifer’s attorneys went on vacation and then called in sick. Ultimately, the medical board decided to allow the new panel to reach its own conclusion.

The nature of the delays in the Leifer case have been a cause of considerable strain on relations between Jerusalem and Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week called on Israel to wrap the case up swiftly.

On Tuesday, a delegation of former Australian officials led by former prime minister John Howard raised the Leifer case during their meeting with President Reuven Rivlin.

According to a statement from his office, Rivlin said “he understood the gravity of the issue for the Australian public and added that it was painful for us, too. He also said that the relevant authorities… are of the opinion that extradition should be carried out as soon as possible and are doing all in their power to ensure that is the case.”

Australian sisters Nicole Meyer (L) and Dassi Erlich (R) take part in a demonstration on March 13, 2019, outside the Jerusalem District Court after an extradition hearings for Malka Leifer, a former girls school principal wanted for sexual abuse in Australia. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Israeli legal system is independent, but the State of Israel is doing everything possible to move the extradition forward,” the president added.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured the same delegation that Israel would immediately sign off on Leifer’s extradition if ordered by a Jerusalem court, sources present at the sit-down from both countries confirmed to The Times of Israel.

In 2000, Leifer was recruited from Israel to work at the all-girls Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne. 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.

Following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on claims regarding her mental state, Leifer was rearrested in February 2018 and has remained in custody since. The operation was launched at the request of Interpol after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in Emmanuel, a Haredi settlement in the northern West Bank, where Leifer had been living. The camera footage showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.

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