Panel finds accused sex abuser Leifer fit to stand trial, feigned mental illness

Court-ordered medical board will present findings at hearing next week, ahead of judge’s decision on whether to move forward with extraditing alleged serial pedophile to Australia

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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

A court ordered psychiatric panel has determined that alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer has been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition to Australia, and assesses her as fit to stand trial, an official with knowledge of the case confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday.

The three-member panel had been convened on orders from Jerusalem District Court Judge Chana Lomp, who determined in September that the evidence regarding Leifer’s mental state was contradictory and not sufficient for her to rule on whether to move forward with extradition.

Leifer is wanted in Australia on 74 charges of child sex abuse allegedly perpetrated against several of her students while she served as the headmistress of the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne from 2000 to 2008.

Malka Leifer (YouTube screenshot)

The psychiatric panel had been slated to present its findings last month, but on the day of its court-ordered deadline, the head of the medical board notified Lomp that he needed additional time to complete the evaluation.

The delay deeply angered officials in Australia, who have already been outspoken about Israel’s handling of the case — and particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision in December to appoint United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman as health minister.

Police in July recommended that Litzman be charged for pressuring Health Ministry officials to deem Leifer mentally unfit for extradition. One of the psychiatrists alleged to have been influenced by Litzman, Chief Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes, changed his medical conclusion regarding Leifer’s mental health three times since the case began, causing significant delays in the process.

The Jerusalem District Court is slated to convene next Tuesday, when the report on Leifer compiled by the psychiatric panel will be reviewed and both sides will be given the opportunity to cross-examine the doctors who evaluated the suspect. This is likely to require more than a single hearing.

The conclusion of the panel that Leifer has been feigning mental illness is likely to be the driving factor in Lomp’s decision on whether to move forward with extradition, given that she personally had ordered it be convened.

A private investigator tagged Malka Leifer as she did shopping in Bnei Brak on December 14, 2017. (Screen capture/YouTube)

However, officials in the prosecution have refused to provide a timeline on when Leifer is likely to be extradited as they expect her attorneys to appeal the final decision, further delaying the process by months.

Leifer’s lawyers Tal Gabbay and Yehuda Fried said in a joint statement that the conclusions of the psychiatric panel were “no surprise.” Nonetheless, they expressed confidence that the Jerusalem District Court would reject the findings,  and instead rely on the several experts — including Charnes — who determined that their client is not fit to stand trial.

Dassi Erlich, one of Malka Leifer’s alleged victims, excitedly hailed Thursday’s developments in a tweet: “We cannot believe this day has come!!! Incredible news!! We knew this all along! Such a long wait, justice has come!!”

In 2000, Leifer left Israel to work at the all-girls Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox 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.

She was arrested in Israel in 2014 after Australia filed for extradition, but a Jerusalem court suspended the proceedings in 2016, deeming her mentally unfit to stand trial. She was rearrested in 2018 after being filmed appearing to lead a fully functional life.

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

Both the prosecution and defense opposed Lomp’s appointment of a new panel last October, arguing that sufficient evidence had been submitted to reach a verdict.

The state has relied on the legal opinions of three district psychiatrists issued over the last two years that determined that Leifer is mentally fit to face justice.

Leifer’s attorneys, meanwhile, cited testimony from prison doctors, who say she takes the highest dosage of anti-psychotic medication. They also flew in several attorneys from around the world to argue that Leifer is not mentally competent.

Fried and Gabay have dismissed the undercover film of Leifer and insist that she suffers from mental illness, but that the debilitating panic attacks that she experiences largely occur when she is in situations of stress, such as in prison or at court hearings.

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