In a major ruling, the Jerusalem District Court has determined that alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer is mentally fit for extradition to Australia to stand trial on charges of 74 counts of child sex abuse.
The decision handed down by Judge Chana Miriam Lomp to reject Leifer’s claims that she was unfit to stand trial seemingly caps a years-long struggle by Leifer’s alleged victims and Australian authorities to see her returned to face justice.
“I decided to accept the expert panel’s opinion,” Lomp announced at the start of the hearing, referring to a psychiatric board that unanimously ruled in January that Leifer has been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition, and assessed her as fit to stand trial.
Lomp scheduled the extradition hearing for July 20, after Leifer attorney Tal Gabay requested additional time to prepare for the session.
Leifer’s alleged victims and supporters celebrated the ruling, along with Australian officials who had fumed over what they saw as Israeli foot-dragging in the case.
“This abusive woman has been exploiting Israeli courts for 6 years! Intentionally creating obstacles, endless vexatious arguments – only lengthening our ongoing trauma!” said one of Leifer’s alleged victims, Dassi Erlich, in a statement immediately after the ruling. “Too many emotions to process!!! This is huge!”
“After six long years, 67 court hearings, finally Judge Lomp has declared what we knew all along – that Malka Leifer is fit to face extradition,” said Australian Member of Parliament Josh Burns. “Justice is finally arriving for the victims in Australia. Well done to three outstanding and inspiring women – Dassi, Nicole and Elly who have fought through this roller-coaster. We will all keep fighting until Leifer is in a Victorian courtroom facing justice.”
Leifer faces counts of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by the three sisters, who say they were abused while she was a teacher and principal at the ultra-Orthodox religious school they attended in Melbourne. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school in Australia and returned to Israel.
Defense attorney Yehuda Fried told reporters outside the courtroom that they would appeal following the July 20 hearing, if Lomp accepts the extradition petition.
Standing off to the side, the prosecution’s Matan Akiva told The Times of Israel that the defense could also appeal Lomp’s decision Tuesday on Leifer’s mental fitness if it so chooses, and can also appeal to the Supreme Court should Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn ultimately sign off on the extradition.
Leifer had for years said she was too sick to attend extradition hearings, causing them to be pushed off, and argued that she was too mentally frail to return to Australia to stand trial.
In the ruling itself, Lomp wrote that “in light of the panel’s opinion, I was persuaded that the respondent understands the charges for which she would be prosecuted in Australia and also understood the nature of the extradition procedure.”
Referring to medical opinions submitted on the defense’s behalf by three district psychiatrists that reached a different conclusion from that of the court-appointed psychiatric panel, Lomp wrote that they were based on “erroneous facts” and that they had not updated their opinions after the prosecution’s submission of video evidence that suggested Leifer was feigning mental illness.
Leifer did not cooperate with the psychiatric panel “when asked questions related to the legal process, but on other issues she answered questions matter-of-factly in three different sessions,” Lomp wrote.
Dismissing the defense’s argument that the court-appointed psychiatric panel’s three members had succumbed to public pressure in making their determination, Lomp wrote that the “experts are objective, acted as the long arm of the court upon their appointment, did their job faithfully, and ruled in a unanimous measure.”
Lomp wrote that Leifer does appear to suffer from mental illness, but “not psychotic… problems of mental illness in the legal sense,” that would warrant halting the proceedings against her.
“In light of all the above, I hold that the defendant is impersonating regarding her ability to function and is fit to stand trial. Therefore I order that the extradition procedure be resumed in her case,” Lomp wrote.
Avital Ribner-Oron from the prosecution told reporters she was “pleased that after lengthy proceedings the court has accepted our arguments that she is fit for extradition.”
She said the ruling “removed a major obstacle and we look forward to proceedings in a swift and timely matter.”
For his part, Gabay said that the court ignored the fact that Leifer had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication at the Neve Tirza women’s prison and that she could not be receiving such pills if she were faking.
With a blue medical mask on which he had jotted down the phrase, “BRING LEIFER BACK,” victims rights activist Manny Waks told reporters that Leifer had managed to “play the legal system for years.”
Waks acknowledged that “there’s still a bit of a way to go” before Leifer would be placed on a plane and said the Adass school, which ferried her out of Australia as allegations came to light, and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, who allegedly pressured state psychiatrists to change their medical opinions to find Leifer unfit for extradition, “still needed to face justice.”
“This is something we’ve been fighting for a very long time, and I’m just delighted for the girls who have faced such challenges,” an emotional Waks said, referring to Erlich and her sisters Nicole Meyer and Elie Sapper, who had gathered at Erlich’s home in Melbourne to receive the news of the Jerusalem District Court ruling via text message.
“The court decision that Malka Leifer is fit to stand trial is truly wonderful. We may not always grasp the wheels of justice, but at the end of the day, in free and open societies the truth will emerge. Such welcome news! Mazal Tov Dassi_erlich, Ellie and Nicole!” Israel’s Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer tweeted.
Leifer was put under house arrest in 2014 after Australia filed an extradition request and underwent the beginnings of an extradition process. But that ended in 2016 when a mental health evaluation determined she wasn’t fit to stand trial.
Leifer was again arrested in early 2018 after police found evidence that she had faked her mental incompetence. The court asked for another psychological review, whose findings were handed down in January by a medical panel that unanimously determined Leifer had been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition to Australia, and assessed her as fit to stand trial.
The proceedings have been plagued with repeated delays, which allegedly had to do Litzman’s involvement. One of the psychiatrists alleged to have been influenced by Litzman, Chief Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes, changed his medical conclusion regarding Leifer’s mental health three times since the case began, causing significant delays in the process. Police last year recommended that Litzman, who is a member of the Gur Hassidic sect to which Leifer has ties, be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over his conduct in the case.
The delays have caused tensions between Jerusalem and Canberra, with the latter demanding for years that the proceedings be moved along at a quicker pace.
“This is a welcome and meaningful step, if much delayed,” said Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler. “That said, it is likely that Leifer’s lawyers will appeal this decision, meaning we are still not at a point where the extradition trial can commence.”
“We continue to urge the Israeli judicial system to expedite matters. Leifer has been credibly accused of serious crimes and must face trial. The Australian Jewish community stands shoulder to shoulder with the victims of Leifer’s alleged abuse,” Leibler added.