President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that a former principal accused of sexually abusing children at a Melbourne school would not be able to hide behind Israel’s court system.
On Tuesday, an Jerusalem court ruled Malka Leifer was fit to be extradited to Australia to face 74 child sex abuse charges, marking a pivotal moment in a years-long battle to see her stand trial after she fled to Israel over a decade ago.
“The State of Israel will not allow anyone to use its institutions to evade justice,” Rivlin told Morrison, reiterating remarks he made in person when he visited Australia in February.
Rivlin noted that the Jerusalem District Court had illustrated this with its Tuesday decision, his office said in a statement about the phone call. The court found that Leifer had been faking mental illness for years to avoid prosecution.
Rivlin told Morrison that the extradition hearing is scheduled for July 20, and that Leifer can still appeal to the Supreme Court if the court rules she should be extradited.
According to attorneys involved in the case, should Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn eventually sign off on the extradition Leifer can also appeal at that point.
Nonetheless, Tuesday’s ruling was met with relief by alleged victims, rights groups and Australian officials, after the case had put some strain on ties between Jerusalem and Canberra.
Morrison thanked Rivlin for the call and said the court decision had been met “with a real sense of relief in Australia, and particularly by the Jewish community,” according to the statement.
The extradition request had been a central issue during Rivlin’s official visit to Australia in February, the statement said.
Australian Attorney General Christian Porter released a statement overnight Tuesday saying the court ruling “is a positive sign and means that extradition proceedings can now lawfully commence, subject to any orders relevant to any possible appeal.”
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, told Australia’s news.com.au website that the court decision was a “massive breakthrough” that “has gone some way to restoring the balance of the relationship” between Israel and Australia.
The case and its stalled progress in the past “was starting to become a focal point in the relationship which was unhelpful and an irritant,” he said. “I think it was creating a whole lot of annoyance and incomprehension as to how this was allowed to happen.”
Ted Baillieu, the former premier of Victoria, the state where Leifer’s alleged crimes were committed, told news.com.au that the process had taken “far too long.”
“To take seven years to get to the extradition hearing is just unfair,” he said.
The Leifar saga was also discussed in the Knesset Wednesday when Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar asked Nissenkorn when Leifer will actually be extradited during a debate about how alleged pedophiles from around the world are using Israel as a safe haven.
Nissenkorn noted that the State Attorney’s Office is “unequivocal” regarding her extradition, and said the matter will arrive on his desk at the end of the legal process “after which I will make a decision.”
Avidar also demanded to know when a probe into former health minister Yaakov Litzman’s alleged actions to prevent Leifer’s extradition would come to a close, but Nissenkorn declined to respond. Litzman, head of the government’s ultra-Orthodox UTJ party, is now housing minister.
Leifer had for years said she was too sick to attend extradition hearings, causing them to be pushed off, and argued that she was too mentally frail to return to Australia to stand trial.
In the ruling itself, Judge Chana Miriam Lomp accepted the findings of a court-appointed panel that Leifer “understands the charges for which she would be prosecuted in Australia and also understood the nature of the extradition procedure.”
Leifer faces counts of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by three sisters who say they were abused while she was a teacher and principal at the ultra-Orthodox religious school they attended in Melbourne, Victoria. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school in Australia and returned to Israel.
Leifer was put under house arrest in 2014 after Australia filed an extradition request and underwent the beginnings of an extradition process. But that ended in 2016 when a mental health evaluation determined she wasn’t fit to stand trial.
Leifer was again arrested in early 2018 after police found evidence that she had faked her mental incompetence. The court asked for another psychological review, whose findings were handed down in January by a medical panel that unanimously determined Leifer had been feigning mental illness in order to avoid extradition to Australia, and assessed her as fit to stand trial.
The proceedings have been plagued with repeated delays, which allegedly had to do with Litzman’s involvement.
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. Police last year recommended that Litzman, who is a member of the Gur Hasidic sect to which Leifer has ties, be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over his conduct in the case.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.