PR firm plans smear of minister to block extradition of alleged sex abuser

Campaign attacks Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and presents Malka Leifer, accused of molesting children at Australian school, as ’51-year-old grandmother’

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

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

Malka Leifer’s family has recruited a PR firm that has developed a smear campaign bent on preventing the extradition of the former ultra-Orthodox girls’ school principal in Australia, who is accused of molesting her students.

The campaign, which was exposed Wednesday in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, will frame Leifer as a “51-year-old grandmother” and claim that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is responsible for signing off on extraditions from Israel, is a biased arbitrator with close ties to Australian authorities intent on prosecuting the woman wanted on 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Moreover, it will seek to recruit a state psychiatrist willing to testify in court that Leifer is not fit to stand trial, and target the medical experts who have thus-far rejected the notion that Leifer’s mental health should prevent her from extradition. The campaign, led by media strategist Ronen Tzur, will seek to file complaints against those district psychiatrists for medical malpractice.

According to a slideshow retrieved by the Hebrew daily, the campaign will go after the “rotten” Shaked, arguing that since entering the Justice Ministry, she has had a “clear agenda that for every suspect who commits an offense, there is presumption of innocence… provided you have close ties to her.”

Malka Leifer (YouTube screenshot)

“We will expose the despicable conduct of Minister Shaked in the Leifer case, the strange connection between the minister and crony capitalists in Australia, and the earth-shattering failures of the judicial system,” one of the slides retrieved by Yedioth reads.

Tzur’s Rosenbaum Communications confirmed the campaign’s existence, but clarified that it has yet to be implemented and that it is unclear if and when that will happen.

“As part of our work, many different ideas are raised to deal with clients, and naturally, not all of them cross the brainstorming stage. We do not typically discuss [matters pertaining to] our clients, and we will act accordingly [on this matter as well],” the PR firm said in a statement.

In a statement of their own responding to the report, the Leifer family said, “the more we look into this affair, the more questions we have about these and other relevant parties that should disturb the general public in Israel.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Flash90)

Shaked’s office responded to the report, asserting in a statement that “the justice minister will not be deterred by any tendentious and false campaign against her.”

“If the court decides to extradite Malka Leifer to Australia, Shaked will not hesitate to do so… and does not intend to surrender to the threats.”

Dassi Erlich, one of Leifer’s alleged victims who has been campaigning for the extradition of her former principal, told The Times of Israel that she was “absolutely shocked” by the Yedioth report, but that “it wasn’t entirely unexpected.”

“We knew they’d go all lengths to make sure [the extradition] doesn’t happen and we knew that they would play dirty,” Erlich said, adding that she was confident that neither Shaked or the court would be influenced by the campaign.

The Australian rights activist for survivors of sexual assault said she had questions regarding the source of the funds being used to bankroll the exposed PR campaign.

Tzur tweeted that the Leifer family “is without means,” suggesting that outside parties have been recruited to finance the campaign to free the alleged sex abuser.

Erlich was in Israel, along with her two sisters Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper — who also have accused Leifer of molesting them — for the Tuesday Jerusalem District Court hearing on the former principal’s fitness for extradition.

The sisters were hoping to face their alleged attacker in court for the first time, but Judge Chana Lomp accepted a motion from the defense which asserted that an appearance at the hearing would cause Leifer severe emotional distress.

Lomp also ordered the hearing be held behind closed doors.

(From L-R) Sisters Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich, and Nicole Meyer pose for a photo outside Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on November 22, 2018. (Courtesy)

The proceeding saw district psychiatrist Igor Barash take the stand for questioning on his medical report that deemed Leifer fit to stand trial and extradition. The hearing began at 10:00 a.m. and the defense was still questioning the Barash at 5:00 p.m., when the Lomp decided that the proceedings would pick up on January 17 and 24, where psychiatrists for the state and defense will continue to be cross-examined.

Tuesday’s session was the 42nd court date in the Leifer case and proceedings on the extradition itself have not even begun.

While many of the delays in the case have been requested by Leifer’s defense team, her attorney Yehuda Fried said he intends to submit another request to have his client released from prison, arguing that his client has unfairly been forced to remain in prison as the proceedings have drawn out.

Leifer, an Israeli citizen, fled Australia to Israel in 2008, days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced following a heads-up from officials at the Adass Israel school where she taught.

Dassi Erlich; Beyond a Survivor, Nicole Meyer and Elly Saper have just left the Jerusalem courtroom in the latest case to bring Malka Leifer back to Australia. This was their message for journalists and the public that have been supporting their quest for justice.

Posted by Plus61J Media on Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Erlich sisters are also using their trip to garner support for their campaign to extradite Leifer. They have met with a number of Knesset members who have released statements of support, including Yehudah Glick (Likud), Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), Michal Biran (Zionist Union) and Rachel Azaria (Kulanu).

After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against Leifer, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2014. Leifer was then arrested in Israel but released to house arrest shortly thereafter.

Several years after coming to Israel and living in Bnei Brak, she moved with her husband and 10 children to the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel in the northern West Bank.

In June 2014, an Israeli court stopped the extradition process after an initial psychiatric assessment found that she was not fit to stand trial. Mental health professionals, including the Jerusalem district psychiatrist, found that the woman’s panic attacks prior to her scheduled court appearances were genuine and said that the proceedings of a court hearing put her under extreme anxiety.

Leifer was allowed to remain in Emmanuel under the supervision of community rabbis so long as she reported to a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation every six months.

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

During that time, Jewish Community Watch — a global anti-child abuse organization — hired a private investigator to look into claims that Leifer was feigning mental illness.

The investigator installed hidden cameras that showed the woman going about her daily chores. The footage led to a police undercover operation, which came to the conclusion that she had in fact been faking in order to avoid extradition.

After Leifer’s subsequent February arrest, her defense team filed a number of petitions demanding her release, standing by the assertion that she is mentally unfit for trial, the most recent of which fell short last June when a Jerusalem District Court rejected Fried’s request to have Leifer released on bail. The decision cited a psychiatric evaluation completed shortly after her arrest that deemed the conclusions of the 2014 evaluation to have been false.

Malka Leifer’s attorney Yehudah Fried speaks to reporters outside the Jerusalem District Court in March 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

In August, a state psychiatric examination was submitted to the Jerusalem District Court deeming Leifer fit to continue facing an extradition hearing.

Fried disputed the conclusions submitted Dr. Moshe Weisbroth and demanded that the defense be allowed to have its own medical professionals evaluate the suspect.

Judge Lomp accepted the request and ordered Fried to submit his own psychiatric assessment of Leifer, which will be reviewed by the court in January.

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