Rejecting appeal, top court says Leifer must appear before key medical panel

Psychiatric board set to hand down ruling next week on whether alleged child rapist is feigning mental illness to avoid extradition to Australia

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

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)
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)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a ruling ordering alleged sex offender Malka Leifer to appear before a psychiatric panel to determine whether she has been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition to Australia.

The former principal of the ultra-Orthodox girls’ high school in Melbourne, Australia, where she faces 74 charges of sexual assault, is scheduled to be brought before a board of three court-appointed district psychiatrists on Wednesday.

The medical panel is expected to provide a recommendation by December 10, at which point the Jerusalem District Court will reconvene for a hearing to review the psychiatrists’ findings ahead of a final decision on Leifer’s mental fitness for extradition.

Hours after what was the 61st hearing convened since Leifer was first arrested in Israel in 2014, Judge David Mintz ruled on Tuesday that it would be “inconceivable” for the 52-year-old to evade an appearance before the panel if her defense attorneys were simultaneously arguing that she is not fit for trial.

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

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.

The defense has maintained that the 2016 decision was irreversible and that the Jerusalem District Court had no authority to convene an additional panel.

Mintz rejected the argument saying there is considerable legal precedent for revisiting a suspect’s psychiatric state in cases where there is believed to be an improvement in his or her condition.

“All the more so in this case when the issue at hand is whether [she’s been] faking,” the supreme court judge continued, referring to Leifer’s rearrest in 2018 after private investigators filmed her roaming around her home town in the West Bank without any apparent difficulty.

(From L-R) Malka Leifer’s attorneys Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried speak to reporters at the Jerusalem District Court on September 23, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem District Court Judge Channa Lomp ruled in October that the evidence regarding Leifer’s health was inconclusive and therefore a board of psychiatric experts would be appointed to determine whether the former principal has been faking mental incompetence.

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

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

Leifer’s attorneys, meanwhile, cited testimony from prison doctors, who say that 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.

Her defense lawyers, Yehuda Fried and Tal 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 prison or court hearings.

In convening the psychiatric panel, Lomp agreed to the state’s request that Jerusalem District chief psychiatrist Jacob Charnes be barred from any involvement in the panel despite the court being under his jurisdiction.

Charnes has changed his opinion on Leifer’s mental fitness three times, dragging out the proceedings that have lasted over five years. Last July, police recommended Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over suspicions that he pressured officials in his office, including Charnes, to prevent Leifer from being extradited.

The nature of the delays in the Leifer case have been a cause of considerable strain on relations between Jerusalem and Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month called on Israel to wrap the case up swiftly.

Responding to Tuesday’s ruling, one of Leifer’s alleged victims Dassi Erlich tweeted, “time to breathe, sleep and remember we will get through this.”

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