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'A victory for justice'

Court rules accused sex abuser Leifer to be extradited to Australia

In possibly final ruling after 6 years of hearings, judge says ex-principal must face child sex abuse charges in Melbourne, pending expected appeal

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

Malka Leifer seen on a screen, left, via a video link during a court hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on July 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Malka Leifer seen on a screen, left, via a video link during a court hearing at the Jerusalem District Court on July 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jerusalem District Court on Monday ruled in favor of extraditing Malka Leifer to Australia, where the former ultra-Orthodox girls’ high school principal faces 74 charges of child sex abuse.

The decision brings nearer to an end Leifer’s 12-year attempt to evade justice, which began when she fled to Israel in 2008 as accusations against her were coming to light, but can still be held up by an appeal.

Australia has been seeking the extradition of Leifer since 2014, on accusations that she sexually assaulted students under her care at a Jewish school in Melbourne.

The case had been delayed repeatedly by claims that Leifer was too sick to attend the hearings, and later by accusations of foot-dragging by Israeli officials seeking to protect Leifer, straining Israel’s relations with both Australia’s government and the Jewish community there.

“A victory for justice!! A victory for all survivors!!” accuser Dassi Erlich tweeted moments after the ruling.

Judge Miriam Lomp’s decision was largely expected by the prosecution along with victims’ rights groups following the case, since the judge herself determined in May that Leifer was mentally fit to face justice.

In this photo from February 27, 2018, Malka Leifer, right, is brought to a courtroom in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

That ruling was appealed by Leifer’s attorneys to the Supreme Court, which rejected the defense’s arguments out of hand earlier this month, notably arguing that questions regarding the 59-year-old’s mental state were for an Australian court — not an Israeli one — to adjudicate.

In Monday’s decision, Lomp wrote, “I accept the petition and declare the respondent as extraditable to Australia for the offenses attributed to her in the extradition request.”

“Since I have determined that [Leifer] was not a resident of Israel at the time of the offenses which are the subject of the petition, she is not entitled to the protection provided in Section 1A of the Extradition Law, that would have allowed her to carry out her sentence in Israel,” she said, adding that Leifer will remain in police custody until she is sent back to Australia.

The defense signaled it would appeal Monday’s decision, but given the Supreme Court’s stated frustration with the drawn-out nature of the proceedings, it was not clear whether the justices would even agree to take on the case another time.

“This is of course not the final word and a final decision be made at the Supreme Court,” Leifer’s lawyers Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried said in a statement.

Malka Leifer’s defense attorney Yehuda Fried (L) at the Jerusalem District Court on September 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

State prosecutors meanwhile hailed the ruling.

“This is an important day for the rule of law, for Israel’s international commitment and particularly for the victims of the crime. We’re sorry the proceedings took a long time, mainly because of Leifer’s attempt to pretend she’s mentally ill,” prosecutors Matan Akiva and Avital Ribner-Oron said in a Justice Ministry statement.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn will still be required to sign off on the extradition in order for Leifer to be put on a plane back to Australia — another procedural step that provides an opportunity for an appeal.

Manny Waks, who heads the Kol V’Oz international group supporting child sex abuse victims, called Lomp’s ruling “a great day for justice.”

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)

“While there may yet be a further appeal, we have now overcome the biggest hurdles and can look forward to Malka Leifer’s extradition. We hope and trust that any remaining processes will be dealt with quickly so that we may see Leifer back in Australia in 2020,” he said in a statement.

Zionist Federation of Australia President Jeremy Leibler expressed hopes after the ruling that the Leifer defense team would drop any remaining available appeals. “It is well past time to bring Leifer home. The survivors deserve justice,” he said.

In a joint statement ahead of Monday’s ruling, Leifer’s alleged victims Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Ellie Sapper lamented the lengthy proceedings that had been required to reach a decision on extradition.

In 2000, Leifer left Israel to take a job at Adass Israel, an Orthodox Jewish day 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 escape before charges were filed.

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. Litzman later became housing minister, but resigned from the government earlier this month, ostensibly in protest over coronavirus lockdown measures.

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 had been faking mental incompetence.

In February, the panel filed its conclusion that Leifer had been faking, leading Lomp to make her determination last May.

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