Psychiatrist tied to deputy health minister probe removed from Malka Leifer case

Doctor who was questioned after changing opinion on alleged sex offender’s mental state, allegedly due to pressure from Yaakov Litzman, won’t select key panel

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

Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes in 2016 (Facebook)
Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes in 2016 (Facebook)

A Jerusalem District Court judge ruled on Sunday that the psychiatrist suspected of changing his legal opinion and ruling Malka Leifer unfit for extradition to Australia due to pressure from Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman will not select a key panel that will likely determine the fate of the alleged serial pedophile.

Jerusalem District psychiatrist Jacob Charnes had been slated to select three psychiatrists who would provide a recommendation to the court as to whether Leifer is feigning mental illness to avoid extradition to Australia, where she is wanted on 74 charges of child sex abuse.

Charnes has changed his determination three times in the Leifer case, most recently recommending that a new psychiatric panel be convened to make an updated assessment.

Judge Chana Lomp ultimately accepted his recommendation at a hearing last month and said Charnes would determine who would sit on the panel.

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

While some were baffled by Charnes’s flip-flops, a possible reason for them emerged in April when police began investigating 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.

(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)

However, since being implicated in the corruption case, Charnes notified the court that he would not sit on the psychiatric panel he was asked to appoint.

But at Sunday’s hearing to further determine the makeup of the panel, Lomp agreed to the state’s demand that Charnes be barred from any involvement in the Leifer case. Instead, Tel Aviv District Psychiatrist Uzi Shai will select the members of the special medical board.

He was ordered to do so by October 23. The deadline for the panel to then hand down its recommendation is December 10.

Present in the courtroom on behalf of the state was the director of the department for international affairs at the State Attorney’s Office, Yuval Kaplinsky.

This was the first time in years that Kaplinsky made an appearance at a hearing in this particular case — with Sunday’s being the 60th hearing in the proceedings against Leifer.

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)

Shana Aaronson from the Jewish Community Watch group, which has been involved in the case, told the Plus61J Australian news outlet that Kaplinsky’s appearance demonstrated “how the case has risen in terms of priority, in terms of public pressure and in terms of appearance.”

Kaplinksy told the judge that the extradition case, which started in 2014, has gone on for too long and must be concluded in a timely fashion. He explained that if Israel expects other countries to extradite its prisoners to it, it must do the same in this case as well. The defense, on more than one occasion, shouted Kaplinsky out and said that diplomatic affairs were not relevant to the case and should not be a factor in any decision.

Speaking to Plus61J, Aaronson praised Lomp’s decision to task the Tel Aviv district psychiatrist, instead of Charnes, with forming the pivotal psychiatric panel as “a step in the right direction toward justice, toward clarity and toward ethical decisions in this case.”

Last week, the same court ordered that Leifer be released to house arrest while the psychiatric panel weighs in on her case. The state appealed against the ruling to the Supreme Court, which ordered she be held in prison until a decision is made in the coming days.

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

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

The initial ruling to release Leifer by Judge Ram Vinograd sparked international outcry, with Australia’s ambassador to Israel, several members of Australian parliament and the country’s attorney general publicly condemning the decision and calling for Leifer’s immediate extradition.

Israel’s Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer appeared to comes as close as an envoy could to criticizing a court ruling from his own country, tweeting, “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.”

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 swiftly 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 Jewish Community Watch hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in Emmanuel that showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.

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