Court set to rule on Malka Leifer’s mental fitness for extradition to Australia

Defense and prosecution concerned judge could further delay proceedings with call for fresh psychological evaluations for former principal accused of 74 counts of child sex abuse

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

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

A Jerusalem District Court judge was set to hand down a pivotal ruling on Monday morning in the case involving Malka Leifer, who is accused of 74 counts of child sex abuse in Australia, which seeks her extradition.

Judge Chana Lomp is expected to decide whether Leifer is mentally competent to stand trial. Her lawyers argue that she experiences debilitating panic attacks when placed in situations of stress such as prison or court. The prosecution asserts that Leifer is feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition.

A ruling finding that the former principal of the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne is competent would jump-start the extradition process, ultimately returning Leifer to Australia to face justice. If deemed mentally unfit, the 52-year-old would likely be released from the Neve Tirza women’s prison.

However, a legal official told The Times of Israel that Lomp is also weighing the possibility of holding off on making a decision, and instead convening a new panel of three state psychiatrists to provide yet another recommendation on her mental health. Such a decision would likely delay the process by an additional six months to a year.

Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school headmistress Malka Leifer (left) with her students, among them Nicole Meyer (center) in 2003. (Courtesy)

Leifer has already been examined by dozens of medical professionals, among them three district psychiatrists who determined that she has been faking her illness.

The idea for a new panel was recommended by Chief Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Charnes, who has changed his own opinion several times.

In April 2015, he signed off on a legal opinion affirming that she was fit to face an extradition hearing. In December of that year, he signed off on another legal opinion, which reached a contrary conclusion. After Leifer was re-arrested in 2018, state psychiatrists put together an updated legal opinion, once again finding her fit for extradition.

Charnes refused to sign off on the document for several months, but eventually did so. However, when he was cross-examined by the defense on the evaluation late last year, he refused to make a determination and instead recommended another panel be convened.

Last month, police recommended that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman be indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust for pressuring staff in his office to change the conclusions of their psychiatric evaluations so that Leifer be deemed unfit for extradition.

(R) Deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman seen during a press conference after meeting with president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90); (L) A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she spoke on the phone, while sitting on a bench in Bnei Brak, on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Litzman has denied wrongdoing, saying everything he did was legal and “for the good of the public.”

A legal official confirmed to The Times of Israel that Charnes was among the officials allegedly pressured. While he was interrogated under caution, police have not recommend that he face charges in the Litzman case.

Because the deputy minister has not yet been indicted, the developments involving Charnes and Litzman are inadmissible in the Leifer trial.

If Lomp decides to convene an additional psychiatric panel, it would likely be put together by Charne, unless he recuses himself.

Both the defense and prosecution have expressed opposition to the idea of further delaying a decision. The Jerusalem District Attorney’s Office maintains that the opinions of three district psychiatrists are sufficient evidence proving that Leifer has been faking. Leifer’s defense team has leaned on the legal opinion from Charnes in which he determined the former principal mentally incompetent as well as the conclusions of several doctors they flew from around the world to testify on Leifer’s behalf.

Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes in 2016 (Facebook)

The suspect’s attorney Yehuda Fried told The Times of Israel on Sunday that he opposed convening a new psychiatric panel because “it would be difficult to find objective medical experts who have not been intimidated by the media.”

Three of Leifer’s accusers, sisters Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper, and Nicole Meyer had planned to fly to Israel for Monday’s hearing but decided earlier this month against it.

“Two out of three [possible outcomes for the hearing] will mean significant more delays in this process. Right now all three of us are feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. We’ve decided to push off our trip to Israel and reserve our energy until there is more certainty regarding next steps in this long process,” Erlich wrote on Facebook on September 2.

On Sunday, she told The Times of Israel that she was “hoping for the best but expecting the worst.”

Monday’s hearing will be the 57th since Leifer was first arrested in Israel in August 2014.

A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she did shopping in Bnei Brak on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Leifer was whisked out of Australia in 2008 by members of the Adass board as allegations against her were coming to light. 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. Accepting the argument of the defense that she was too ill to leave her bed, Judge Amnon Cohen eventually removed all restrictions against Leifer.

However, Cohen ordered that she appear every six months before a medical board that which would decide whether to keep requiring her to receive psychiatric treatment.

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.

Lomp, who has presided over Leifer’s case since her latest arrest, ordered that she continue appearing before the panel every six months.

Malka Leifer’s attorney Yehudah Fried speaks to reporters outside the Jerusalem District Court in March 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

In early July, a medical official confirmed to The Times of Israel that the Cohen-ordered medical board had been gearing up to find that Leifer has been feigning mental illness — a determination that would likely lead Lomp to make a final decision on Monday, rather than deferring to an additional group of psychiatrists.

The panel was slated to reconvene on July 11, and its members were to be given additional documents that were requested before making a final decision.

However, the hearing was delayed several times, with Leifer’s attorney, Fried, calling in sick one week and going on vacation the next week. When the sides subsequently reassembled, the hearing was once again adjourned after the chairman agreed to a request from Fried to remove a doctor whom the attorney alleged held prejudices against his client from the panel. After the court recessed during the month of August, the panel decided to hold off on its decision until after Monday’s hearing.

Most Popular
read more: