A prominent Australian Jewish organization on Wednesday welcomed news that police had recommended the indictment of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman for allegedly pressuring officials in his office to prevent the extradition of suspected sex predator Malka Leifer to Melbourne.
“This is a very welcome step forward in a frustratingly long and drawn out process to achieve justice for Leifer’s victims,” the Zionist Federation of Australia, an umbrella organization of pro-Israel groups, said in a statement.
The ZFA also called for Litzman to step down from his post while the legal proceedings against him continue.
Developments in the Leifer case have been closely followed by the Jewish community in Australia and Tuesday’s police recommendation made national headlines down under.
“These are extremely serious allegations and it is simply untenable for anyone in a position of public trust and responsibility to continue in their position while under
investigation for fraud and breach of trust. There should be zero tolerance for an elected official who sabotages the rule of law – a democratic principle which is foundational to the State of Israel,” the ZFA added.
The Australian umbrella group went on to express solidarity with Leifer’s alleged victims, specifically Dassi Erlich, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer, who have led a campaign to push Israel to extradite their former high school principal.
Police on Tuesday recommended that Litzman be charged with fraud and breach of trust for the case involving Leifer, a former ultra-Orthodox girls’ school principal charged in Australia with 74 counts of child sex abuse. Since February, authorities have been investigating the deputy health minister on suspicion that he had pressured employees in his office to alter the conclusions of psychiatric evaluations that had deemed Leifer fit for extradition.
In addition, police also recommended that Litzman, who is also chairman of the United Torah Judaism party, be charged with bribery for attempts to influence officials in the Health Ministry to prevent the closure of a Jerusalem deli that he frequented — a closure that had been ordered due to “serious sanitary findings found that led to the sickness of a number of people who ate from its products.”
Litzman, who possesses many authorities of a full minister despite serving as a deputy, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining in a response to the police recommendation that his office has a “clear open-door policy for assisting members of the public. This is without discrimination between populations and without clarifying the status of those who call for assistance. The deputy minister expressed confidence that no charges would ultimately be filed.”
In the wake of the police recommendation, it will be up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to determine whether to indict the deputy health minister.
The Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday that the State Prosecutor’s Office is slated to hand down its recommendation to Mandelblit by the September 17 elections and said the attorney general may even reach a decision to indict — pending a hearing — before the vote.
Leifer is known to have links to the Gur community, of which Litzman is a member, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the Hasidic branch.
A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel in February that police had recordings of Litzman and officials in his office speaking to Health Ministry employees and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.
In 2000, Leifer was recruited from Israel to work at the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne. When allegations of sexual abuse against the mother of eight began to surface eight years later, members of the school board purchased a red-eye plane ticket back to Israel for Leifer, allowing her to avoid being charged.
After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against her, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2012. Leifer was arrested in Israel two years later, 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 the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement, a Haredi community in the northern West Bank, where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.
Despite the seemingly damning footage, the trial has dragged on for an additional year, as the court continues to debate her mental fitness. The Jerusalem district psychiatrist responsible for evaluating Leifer, Dr. Jacob Charnes, has changed his mind three times regarding whether Leifer was fit for extradition, ultimately signing off on a legal opinion in which state psychiatrists found her fit for extradition.
However, when the psychiatrist was cross-examined by the defense on the evaluation late last year, he told the court that he recommended an additional evaluation of Leifer be carried out — a proposal that both sides have rejected.
A legal official told The Times of Israel that police suspected Charnes changed his medical conclusion after being contacted by officials in Litzman’s office. Though Charnes has been interrogated under caution in the case against the deputy health minister, police on Tuesday said they did not recommend he be tried.
The Jerusalem District Court will hand down a final decision regarding Leifer’s mental fitness for an extradition hearing on September 23. The Times of Israel learned last month that a separate court-appointed medical board is slated to officially conclude that Leifer has been feigning mental illness, in a ruling that would likely impact the Jerusalem District Court’s decision.