A court on Wednesday ordered that an Israeli woman wanted in Australia for alleged serial crimes of pedophilia be released to house arrest.
The ruling by Jerusalem District Court Judge Ram Vinograd came a week after a judge at the same court cast doubt on the evidence against Malka Leifer and ordered the convening of a psychiatric panel to determine whether she is feigning mental illness to avoid extradition.
At the request of prosecutors, Vinograd agreed to put off Leifer’s release to her sister’s home in Bnei Brak until Friday.
Leifer, 52, faces 74 counts of child sex abuse from her time as the principal of the Adass Israel girls’ school in Melbourne. Australia filed for extradition in 2014, but the process has stalled several times, with a district psychiatrist changing his legal opinions regarding Leifer’s mental fitness, allegedly due to pressure from Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.
“House arrest is a precaution until we complete the process. Ultimately Mrs. Leifer will return to her home and receive the care that she deserves like any sick woman. We hope the prosecution will compose itself and not file an appeal,” Leifer’s lawyer Yehuda Fried said in response to the ruling, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Kol V’oz, an organization that combats child abuse in Jewish communities around the globe, condemned the ruling as “an absolute travesty” and said it brought “shame” on Israel.
“Malka Leifer will now be released to the care of her sister at an address within around 500 meters of two schools and six synagogues,” it said in a statement.
“If Leifer is genuinely unwell, she should be held in a medical facility or jail where she can be appropriately cared for until her extradition to Australia is approved.”
Dassi Erlich, one of Leifer’s accusers, said she was left “reeling” by the ruling, which she described as a “massive betrayal of justice.”
“Given that we are all aware that Leifer is a flight risk as well as the potential of her reoffending, this blatant disregard for the well-being of the Israeli community is outstanding,” she was quoted as saying by Kol V’Oz.
David Southwich, the Victoria State parliament member for Caufield, where Leifer allegedly committed the crimes, slammed the court ruling, tweeting, “This is a disgrace! Malka Leifer should not be out on bail in Israel but instead be put on a plane to face the 74 charges of sexual abuse back in Victoria.”
Last week, Judge Chana Lomp had been slated to reach a decision on whether Leifer was mentally fit for an extradition hearing. She determined, however, that there was not sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion on her own, given the contradicting legal opinions submitted on whether Leifer has been feigning mental illness.
Instead, she ordered that a panel of three district psychiatrists be convened to provide a recommendation on December 10. An additional hearing has been scheduled for October 6 to determine the makeup of the medical board after the judge decided to hear the defense’s demand that the panel include private psychiatrists as opposed to public servants.
Judge Vinograd has several times presided over bail hearings for Leifer, whose attorneys have sought to have her released as the extradition proceedings against her have stalled. Last February, he denied her bail, saying he needed an additional psychiatric opinion to do so — a request that both the defense and the prosecution opposed. A year earlier, Vinograd ordered Leifer released to house arrest after a prominent rabbi known for working with disadvantaged Israelis, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, vouched for her. However, the Supreme Court overturned the decision and she has remained behind bars since.
Leifer was recruited from Israel to work at the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne In 2000. When allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced 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.
After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against her, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2012. Two years later, Leifer was arrested in Israel but released to house arrest shortly thereafter.
Judges deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial and eventually removed all restrictions against her, concluding that she was too ill to even leave her bed.
She was rearrested in February 2018 following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained in custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch organization hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in Emmanuel, a Haredi settlement in the northern West Bank where Leifer had been living, that showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.
Three Jerusalem district psychiatrists determined in legal opinions submitted to the court that Leifer has been feigning mental illness, but the chief district psychiatrist, Dr. Jacob Charnes, has changed his determination three times and most recently recommended that a new psychiatric panel be convened to make an updated determination.
While many were baffled by Charnes’s flip-flops, a possible reason for them emerged when police began investigating in April whether he had been pressured by Litzman, the deputy health minister, to change his medical ruling to deem Leifer unfit for extradition.
In July, police recommended indicting Litzman on charges of fraud and breach of trust. Charnes has been interrogated under caution in the case, but authorities have stopped short of recommending he be charged as well.
Because the deputy minister has not yet been indicted, the developments involving Charnes and Litzman are inadmissible in the Leifer trial.