Deputy minister accused of protecting sex offenders in at least 10 cases

UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman alleged to have pattern of aiding ultra-Orthodox convicts by pressuring corrections officials, Channel 13 report claims

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, right, of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, right, of United Torah Judaism holds a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, April 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman allegedly helped at least 10 serious sex offenders obtain improved conditions, including home visits and other benefits, by pressuring state psychiatrists and prisons service officials, according to a report Tuesday.

Litzman, who hails from the Gur Hasidic community, has been accused in the past of using his influence to protect Malka Leifer, who has been fighting extradition to Australia for allegedly abusing students at a Jewish school there.

According to Channel 13 news, Litzman is suspected of a pattern of pressuring corrections officials to be lenient with other ultra-Orthodox offenders as well.

Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party and is expected to remain in his post in the next government, has been under police investigation since February on suspicions he sought to obtain a falsified psychiatric report that would have prevented Leifer from being extradited to Australia.

Leifer, a former principal at the Adass Israel school in Melbourne, has been charged in Australia with 74 counts of sexually abusing her students. Her extradition from Israel has been delayed by her claims to be mentally unfit to stand trial.

In March, Channel 13 reported on a second police probe in which Litzman and his chief of staff are suspected of pressuring a psychiatrist, Moshe Birger, to ensure that another imprisoned sex offender close to Litzman’s Gur sect was placed in a rehabilitation program.

Participation in the program can lead to home-visit rights and early release from prison.

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 denied the accusations in February, saying, “I have a lot to say, but I cannot speak about it. It was all for the good of the public, everything was legal.”

In March, he denied wrongdoing in both cases, saying his assistance to Leifer was part of his general effort to assist any citizen who appeals to his office for help, and calling the Birger suspicions “lies and slander that never happened.”

According to Tuesday’s report, Channel 13 has now amassed evidence in at least 10 cases, some of which are reportedly being examined by police, in which Litzman is accused of pressuring state psychiatrists and other officials in the cases of sex offenders.

The offenders include convicted pedophiles and rapists, the report said.

“Litzman and his staff reached the point of actual conflict with relevant officials, which helped lead to tensions between the Prisons Service and the Health Ministry,” Channel 13 said, adding that several psychiatrists who faced the alleged pressure have given statements to police.

Protesters demonstrate on March 13, 2019, outside the Jeursalem District Court during extradition hearings for Malka Leifer, a former girls school principal wanted for sexual abuse in Australia. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Part of the new accusations concern Litzman’s former aide and now freshman UTJ lawmaker Yaakov Tesler, who allegedly pressured the Prisons Service to allow home visits for convicted murderer-rapist Tal Tzarfati while he served a 14.5-year sentence for the killing of a young woman in Tel Aviv.

In a brief confrontation between Hamakor and Tesler in a Knesset cafeteria shown in the Tuesday broadcast, Tesler defended his actions.

“Any appeal I receive from a person asking for help, I don’t ask, are they a sex offender or not a sex offender,” he told the channel’s reporter. “Every request I receive, regardless of who it is, I take care of it.”

There was no immediate response from Litzman.

It is not yet clear exactly how many of the cases involved Haredi convicts, a key factor for Hamakor’s charge that Litzman and Tesler’s actions constitute discriminatory protection of sex offenders due to their religious affiliation.

Leifer is known to have links to the Gur community, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the branch.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman attends a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel party in the coastal city of Netanya on January 30, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel in February that police had recordings of Litzman and officials in his office speaking to Health Ministry employees and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.

Concerns over Haredi community leaders protecting those accused of sexual offenses, including against children, have dogged the case from the start.

Leifer, for example, an Israeli citizen, slipped out of Australia and went back to Israel in 2008, days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced, in an escape plan allegedly orchestrated by officials at the Adass Israel school where she taught.

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 last February 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 NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement, a Haredi community where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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