A Jerusalem court refrained from ruling whether alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer is mentally fit for extradition in a hearing on Monday, instead ordering that a psychiatric panel be convened to provide a recommendation by December 10.
As largely expected, Judge Chana Lomp determined 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.
The decision further extended the proceedings against the former principal of the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne, where she is wanted on 74 charges of sex abuse against at least 12 girls.
Leifer was whisked out of Australia by the Adass board as allegations came to light in 2008. She was arrested in Israel in a 2014 Interpol operation after Melbourne filed for extradition. Since then, her lawyers have claimed that she is not mentally competent and experiences debilitating panic attacks when placed in situations of stress such as prison or court.
While three Jerusalem district psychiatrists determined in legal opinions submitted to the court that Leifer has been feigning mental illness, 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 Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman 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 but authorities have stopped short of recommending that 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.
Upon making his recommendation at a hearing last year that a psychiatric panel be convened to rule more conclusively on whether Leifer is faking illness, Charnes said he did not want to sit on the medical board.
However, Judge Lomp said at Monday’s hearing that Charnes would be tasked with appointing the panel’s three state psychiatrists from other districts around the country.
Leifer’s attorneys objected to the selection of state psychiatrists for the panel, demanding that private medical professionals be commissioned. The defense has several times flown doctors in from around the world to testify that Leifer is not mentally competent, contradicting the views of the three Jerusalem district psychiatrists.
While Lomp dismissed the defense’s “distrust” in state officials — it argued that they were “influenced by media pressure” — the judge agreed to hold a hearing on October 6 to determine the makeup of the panel.
The defense team, made up of lawyers Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried, appeared satisfied with Lomp’s ruling, telling reporters outside the courtroom that the judge in effect had rejected the state’s claim that Leifer has been feigning mental illness.
Fried said that he intended to file a motion demanding that his client be immediately released.
The defense’s case appeared to have been strengthened by Lomp’s focus on whether Leifer has been faking rather than whether she is mentally fit for extradition. In ordering the new panel to focus on the former question while adding that the current evidence on the matter is inconclusive, bail for Leifer could once again become a possibility.
Lomp’s decision frustrated the prosecution which opposed the appointment of a new panel. Moreover, it argued that if such a medical board need be convened, it should focus on the issue on which the court will be ruling — Leifer’s mental fitness. A decision to have a group of psychiatrists determine whether a suspect is faking is highly out of the ordinary.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum subsequently addressed reporters, calling the defense’s interpretations of Lomp’s decision “unbelievably cynical.”
“They lament Litzman’s interference in the case, but are then arguing that the only opinions that should be admissible are the ones he interfered with,” she said, further blasting the defense’s insistence on the appointment of private psychiatrists to reach a determination on Leifer.
“What do they have to fear from a neutral panel?” Hassan-Nahoum said.
The ruling was met with fury by Leifer’s alleged victims as well as rights groups.
“We did not see justice today,” said sisters Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper, and Nicole Meyer, alleged victims of Leifer campaigning for her extradition.
“Five years, 57 court hearings and over 30 psychiatrists have been involved in determining if Malka Leifer can understand her charges. How is this not enough? How many more psychiatrists need to weigh in? How much more emotional pain? We are defeated but we will not give up,” the sisters said in a statement.
The Jewish Community Watch NGO, which supports victims of sexual assault, said in a statement that “the real decisions the court has made today is that it wishes to be seen as an international embarrassment instead of a justice system which protects the most vulnerable.”
The Leifer case has been closely followed by the Jewish community in Australia as well as the government in Canberra, which has raised the issue with members of the Israeli government as senior as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Australia’s Deputy Ambassador Steven Yates was among those present at Monday’s hearing.
In a statement responding to a query from The Times of Israel, an embassy spokesperson said, “The Australian Government continues to follow this case closely. While the repeated delays are disappointing, we will maintain our strong interest in seeing Malka Leifer extradited to face justice in Australia.”
In 2000, Leifer was recruited from Israel to work at the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls 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.
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 Jewish Community Watch hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in Emmanuel, a Haredi settlement in the northern West Bank where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.