Israeli officials warn of damage to Australia ties over Leifer sex abuse case
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Israeli officials warn of damage to Australia ties over Leifer sex abuse case

Officials in Canberra and Jerusalem concerned about Jewish state’s handling of case of ex-school principal, wanted in Australia since 2012, who could be freed to house arrest

Former principal Malka Leifer, wanted in Australia for child sex abuse crimes, seen at the Jerusalem District Court, February 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Former principal Malka Leifer, wanted in Australia for child sex abuse crimes, seen at the Jerusalem District Court, February 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The long-stalled decision on whether to extradite an alleged sexual predator from Israel to Australia appeared to put a strain on diplomatic ties on Thursday, with officials from both countries expressing concern about the protracted legal process.

On Wednesday, Jerusalem District Court Judge Ram Vinograd ordered that Malka Leifer, facing extradition to Australia on charges of sexual abuse against former students, be released to house arrest, sparking an international outcry.

Both sides then appealed to the Supreme Court, with the defense demanding an unrestricted release and the prosecution pushing for her to remain behind bars.

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday it would keep Leifer in custody while it considers the appeal.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement that she raised the issue with her Israeli counterpart Israel Katz as recently as last week.

Australia’s Attorney General Christian Porter said “the length of time that Israel is taking to finalize Australia’s extradition request is regrettable,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The Australian Government considers that it is vital that Ms Leifer return to Australia to face the charges against her and will continue to press for Ms Leifer’s extradition to Australia,” said Porter.

Labour MP Josh Burns called the Wednesday decision to release Leifer to house arrest “deeply disappointing” and said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “should make direct contact with Israel to express Australia’s strong view that Ms. Leifer must be extradited to Australia to face justice with no further delays.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Australia appeared to comes as close as an envoy could to criticizing a court ruling from his own country.

“While Israeli lawcourts are independent, there are very many in Israel, including the State Prosecution, who find the recent legal decisions regarding Malka Leifer incomprehensible and are working avidly to overturn them,” Mark Sofer tweeted. “In their eyes, the case has gone on for far too long and nothing short of full justice can be acceptable. Uppermost in their minds is the immediate extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia to stand trial.”

An unnamed Israeli diplomatic official told Haaretz that the lower Jerusalem court’s decision was “the last straw” for Melbourne, which has waited over five years for Leifer to be extradited.

“This case is causing irreparable harm to Israel-Australia relations,” the diplomatic official told Haaretz. “This story is shocking to the Australian public, the rape of little girls seemingly being whitewashed. We have many areas of cooperation with Australia, including security, and they are in real danger.”

Hours ahead of Thursday’s Supreme Court hearing, Australia’s Ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan tweeted, “Australia maintains its consistent position that Malka Leifer should be extradited to face allegations of child sex abuse in Australian courts. Yesterday’s decision to grant bail is concerning. We will continue to put our concerns directly to the Government of Israel.”

In an interview with Australia’s ABC radio, Australia’s former ambassador to Israel and current Federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma said the case “does not reflect well on the Israeli legal system, which has allowed the extradition process to drag on for over five years.”

Israel’s ambassador to Australia appeared to come as close as a diplomat can to criticizing a court ruling from his own country.”

“While Israeli courts are independent, there are very many in Israel, including the State Prosecution, who find the recent legal decisions regarding Malka Leifer incomprehensible and are working avidly to overturn them,” Mark Sofer tweeted. “In their eyes, the case has gone on for far too long and nothing short of full justice can be acceptable. Uppermost in their minds is the immediate extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia to stand trial.”

Supreme Court Justice Anat Baron said at the end of Thursday’s hearing that she would extend the 48-hour stay while she deliberates, before handing down a decision on releasing the 52-year-old former school administrator, at the conclusion of a fiery hearing in which Baron regularly called Leifer’s attorneys to order.

No date was given for the decision, but state prosecutors said a ruling could be expected in the coming days.

“From our perspective, the most important thing is that Malka Leifer will remain in jail at this stage,” said Manny Waks, the CEO of Kol V’Oz, an Israel-based organization that combats child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. “We can take a bit of a breath and hopefully justice will prevail with the eventual outcome being that the judge will reverse the decision from yesterday.”

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

Leifer faces 74 counts of child sex abuse from her time as the principal of the Adass Israel girls’ school in Melbourne. Australia filed for her extradition in 2014, but the process has stalled several times, with a district psychiatrist changing his legal opinions regarding Leifer’s mental fitness, allegedly due to pressure from Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

The prosecution asserts that Leifer has played the system in order to avoid facing justice.

Last week, Jerusalem District Court Judge Chana Lomp ordered the convening of a psychiatric panel to determine by December 10 whether Leifer is feigning mental illness.

An additional hearing has been scheduled for Sunday to determine the makeup of the medical board after the judge decided to hear the defense’s demand that the panel include private psychiatrists as opposed to public servants.

Leifer’s attorneys, Yehuda Fried and Tal Gabay, claim their client experiences debilitating panic attacks when placed in situations of stress such as prison or court.

“We are confident that the Supreme Court will green-light the district court’s decision and order [Leifer’s] release from prison,” Gabay told reporters after the hearing.

If released, Leifer, an Israeli citizen who had lived in the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel, will be allowed to stay at her sister’s home in Bnei Brak.

Wednesday’s ruling was met by uproar from victims rights groups, and members of the Australian government and Jewish community.

At one point during the hearing Leifer’s attorney, Fried, warned Baron against “caving” to pressure from the media as well as the Australian government. He claimed Morrison is “only interested in Leifer and kangaroos.”

Several times during Thursday’s hearing, Baron asked the defense what had changed since March 2018 when the top legal body overruled a similar Jerusalem District Court decision to release Leifer to house arrest.

Leifer’s attorney’s cited last week’s ruling which called the psychiatric evaluations into question, but Baron did not appear convinced and said she wasn’t basing her decision on Lomp’s.

(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)

Leifer was brought from Israel to work at the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne in 2000. When allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced 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 an indictment 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 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, that showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.

Australian sisters Nicole Meyer (L) and Dassi Erlich (R) take part in a demonstration on March 13, 2019, outside the Jerusalem District Court after an extradition hearings for Malka Leifer, a former girls school principal wanted for sexual abuse in Australia. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Three Jerusalem district psychiatrists determined in legal opinions submitted to the court that Leifer had been feigning mental illness, but 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.

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

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 Litzman, the deputy health minister, 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 in the case, but authorities have stopped short of recommending 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.

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