The alleged victims of a woman suspected of sexually abusing students at an Australian school accused her attorneys of attempting to delay legal proceedings against her after a chaotic hearing on Tuesday, where it became clear a final ruling would only take place in several months’ time.
Attorneys for Malka Leifer asked the Jerusalem District Court to cross-examine three expert witnesses who had found the former principal fit to stand trial, dashing hopes for a quick extradition to Australia, where Leifer faces 74 charges of child sex abuse.
The request came after Judge Chana Lomp officially presented the report of a psychiatric panel she had convened that determined Leifer was feigning mental illness to avoid extradition.
Lomp proposed a series of dates in late February and mid-March for the hearings after Leifer’s attorneys rejected earlier dates in January. The prosecution said it was available for hearings as soon as possible.
Leifer’s attorneys, Tal Gabbay and Yehuda Fried, asked for three separate hearings in order to question each panelist in what the prosecution argued was a delay tactic.
Lomp said she would rule on the number of hearings as well as their dates in the coming days.
The defense also asked to present additional psychiatric opinions which contradict the court-ordered panel’s conclusions. In response, prosecutors jumped out of their seats, saying the whole point of the court-ordered panel was to provide a final psychiatric opinion.
The judge said the defense could submit a request to send additional evaluations, but hinted that they would not be accepted.
During the hearing, the defense asserted that instead of relying on the results of the psychiatric panel, the judge should rule to dismiss the case based on the 2016 recommendation of two state psychiatrists who determined Leifer wasn’t fit to stand trial.
However, the prosecution pointed out that the psychiatrists had been appointed by Jerusalem District Chief Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes, who recommended the convening of the latest medical panel.
Charnes changed his views several times in the Leifer case due to what police believe was illicit pressure from then deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman. Leifer has ties to Litzman’s Ger Hasidic sect.
Additionally at Monday’s hearing, the prosecution said it would be submitting a request requiring Leifer to appear in court for all future hearings after the panel’s conclusion last week that she was faking her illness. Leifer has not been present in court for nearly two years.
Leifer faces counts of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by three sisters who say they were abused while she was a teacher and principal at the ultra-Orthodox religious school they attended in Melbourne. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school in Australia and returned to Israel.
After Australia filed an extradition request, Leifer was put under house arrest in 2014 and underwent the beginnings of an extradition process. But that ended in 2016 when a mental health evaluation determined she wasn’t fit to stand trial.
Leifer was again arrested in early 2018 after police found evidence that she had faked her mental incompetence. The court asked for another psychological review, whose findings were announced last week.
Lomp is expected to hand down her final decision as to whether Leifer is fit for an extradition hearing at the conclusion of the cross-examination hearings. If she is deemed mentally competent, a hearing will be held on the extradition petition itself.
A final decision on extradition must be made by the justice minister, though appeals can be made along the way, further delaying the process.
Alleged victims and supporters accused the defense of dragging out the process, further delaying a quest for justice that has already taken over a decade.
“We would have hoped that after another panel confirms she’s faking her illness, things would move quicker. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. These delays are unacceptable,” read a statement from Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, who have accused Leifer of abusing them while they were students at the ultra-Orthodox high school in Melbourne.
Shana Aaronson from the Jewish Community Watch victims rights group said that while she recognized the defense’s right to cross-examine the psychiatric panelists, this is not standard practice in extradition process.
Moreover, given the extent of delays in the proceedings against Leifer which are now in their sixth year, the court could have denied the request or at the very least set dates for cross-examinations that are days instead of months from now.
The Kol V’Oz victims rights group, responded with similar frustration. “As far as we’re concerned, what we saw today is unacceptable. It was emblematic of what we have seen until now – chaotic scenes inside the court-room, with the defense seemingly running proceedings at times.”
“It’s very disappointing to see that the defense’s strategy of delaying justice is proceeding as they planned and stated in the past,” the group continued. “We hope that Judge Lomp will take more control of this case and expedite the process.”
Canberra has also expressed unhappiness over the slow pace of proceedings, amid fears of a diplomatic rift over the issue.
Zionist Federation of Australia President Jeremy Leibler asserted that “another month-long delay until the panel is cross examined is not good enough. While due process must be followed, we hoped the Court would be expeditious given the definitive nature of the panel’s findings.”