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Extradited by Israel, Malka Leifer in Australia court on child sex abuse charges

Former school principal, 54, has first hearing after 6-year battle against transfer from Israel; lawyer requests special conditions to facilitate her religious observance

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

MELBOURNE, Australia — A former school principal extradited from Israel after a six-year legal battle appeared in an Australian court Thursday to face child sex abuse charges.

Malka Leifer, 54, is accused of sexually abusing children while working as a religious studies teacher and principal at the Adass Israel School in Melbourne.

Wearing a white head covering and a blue surgical mask, she appeared via video link, from a police station where she is in COVID-19 quarantine, in a Melbourne court Thursday and was remanded in custody.

Leifer, her head bowed throughout the brief hearing, remained silent when addressed by the magistrate and did not respond when asked if she could see and hear the proceedings. She previously has maintained her innocence.

She faces 74 charges including rape, indecent assault and child sexual abuse offenses alleged to have occurred between 2004 and 2008, according to official documents.

Israeli authorities extradited Leifer this week after a long legal process that strained relations between the two governments and antagonized Australia’s Jewish community.

Her lawyer, Tony Hargreaves, told the court Leifer had serious mental health issues and asked that she be transferred to prison because the police station did not have the required facilities. She also had strict religious beliefs that required special arrangements in custody, Hargreaves said.

A police van leaves Melbourne Airport as Malka Leifer, a former principal at a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school, is returned to Australia under extradition on January 27, 2021 to face dozens of charges of child sexual assault, more than 12 years after she fled the country. (William WEST / AFP)

She did not apply for bail and is due to face court again on April 9.

Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter had earlier noted her arrival in Australia marked the end of a long legal battle and would relieve her alleged victims. “It is now important that the legal processes are allowed to proceed in Victoria without commentary which could affect that process,” he said in the statement.

The protracted court case and repeated delays over her extradition had drawn criticism from Australian officials as well as the country’s Jewish leaders.

As accusations against her began surfacing in 2008, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school and returned to Israel. The two countries have an extradition treaty, but critics, including Leifer’s accusers, had accused Israeli authorities of dragging out the case, while Leifer claimed she was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Last year, an Israeli psychiatric panel determined Leifer was lying about her mental condition, setting in motion the extradition. In December, the Supreme Court rejected a final appeal against her extradition, and Israel’s justice minister signed the order to send her to Australia.

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