Prosecutor: Malka Leifer faked mental illness to avoid extradition to Australia

At sentencing hearing for ex-principal convicted of sexual abuse, prosecution says fact that she ‘improperly frustrated and delayed extradition proceedings’ should be weighed

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

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A former principal of an Australian Jewish school feigned mental illness in a seven-year battle to avoid extradition on child sex abuse charges, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Malka Leifer fought her extradition in Jerusalem courts from 2014 until 2021, when she was flown from Israel with her ankles and wrists shackled.

Leifer appeared Thursday in the Victoria state County Court for the second day of a sentencing hearing after she was convicted in April of sexually abusing two students between 2003 and 2007 while she was principal of Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School for girls.

Prosecutor Justin Lewis told Judge Mark Gamble that Leifer deserved less credit in her sentence for time she spent in custody and under house arrest in her native Israel because she had “improperly frustrated and delayed the extradition proceedings.”

The District Court of Jerusalem ruled she was fit to stand trial and had been pretending to be mentally ill in order to avoid extradition, he said, and three judges of the Supreme Court of Israel unanimously agreed she could be prosecuted.

Two psychiatrists appointed by the Jerusalem District Psychiatrist reported to the District Court in February 2018 that Leifer did not suffer from a mental illness in the legal sense and was feigning her psychiatric condition in order to prevent her extradition to Australia.

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

A second assessment, which included a third psychiatrist appointed by the Jerusalem District Psychiatrist, also concluded that Leifer was feigning mental illness.

The District Court then ordered the Tel Aviv District Psychiatrist to appoint a panel of experts to assess her. That panel unanimously concluded in January 2020 that she was mentally fit to stand trial and that she had “unquestionably been feigning her inability to function and comprehend her situation,” Lewis said.

Before any legal hearing, some psychiatric experts and Leifer’s lawyers said she experienced a “psychotic breakdown,” and her hospitalizations were almost always a few days before her case was due in court.

“Three panels of psychiatrists conclude that the accused is feigning mental illness in circumstances where the mental illness essentially constitutes some sort of allergy to the legal proceedings themselves,” Lewis said. “The proceeding had been extended by the acts of the accused in feigning mental illness for that very purpose.”

Gamble adjourned the sentencing hearing to a third day. The date has yet to be decided.

He said he had yet to read documents in both sides’ submissions, including Israeli court records. He was also awaiting an affidavit from Leifer’s lawyer in Israel about the conditions of her home detention there.

Australian sisters Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer who were allegedly sexually abused by former headteacher Malka Leifer arrive for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem, March 6, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leifer spent 608 days in home detention and 51 days in custody in Israel before her extradition after a legal battle that strained relations between the Australian and Israeli governments while antagonizing Australia’s Jewish community.

Leifer, who was born in Tel Aviv, came to Australia in 2000 as the school’s head of religion and became principal the following year. She returned to Israel in 2008 as allegations against her first emerged.

Sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper told the court Wednesday that being sexually abused by Leifer broke their ability to trust and was painful to remember.

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have chosen to identify themselves in the media.

Leifer watched proceedings via a video link from a maximum security women’s prison in Melbourne.

She is convicted of six charges of rape, each carrying up to 25 years in prison. She was convicted of three charges of sexual penetration of a child, each carrying a potential 10-year sentence, and six charges of indecent assault, which also carries a 10-year sentence. She was convicted of three charges of committing an indecent act with a child, which is punishable by 5 years in prison. There are no minimum sentences.

Most Popular
read more: