Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was questioned by police investigators Thursday, over suspicions he sought to help a former school principal avoid extradition over allegations she molested students in Australia.
Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party, is suspected of ethics violations, according to police.
Police said the interrogation was the result of a secret investigation that began several months ago.
Litzman is suspected of having sought to obtain a falsified psychiatric report that would have prevented Malka Leifer’s extradition to Australia on medical grounds, a Justice Ministry official confirmed to The Times of Israel.
The official said that police have recordings of Litzman and officials in his office speaking to health ministry officials and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.
Leifer, the former head of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne, is wanted on 74 charges of child sexual abuse in Australia.
She once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the Gur Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a member.
“Deputy Minister Litzman is confident in his innocence and will continue to assist [with] any request that comes to his office, in accordance with the law and existing regulations,” Litzman’s office said in a statement.
Leifer, an Israeli citizen, fled Australia to Israel in 2008, days before allegations of sexual abuse against her surfaced, following a heads-up from officials at the Adass Israel school where she taught.
After authorities in Melbourne filed charges 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 last February following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained under custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the ultra-Orthodox town without any apparent difficulty.
After Leifer’s initial arrest in 2014, Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes submitted two psychiatric opinions deeming her mentally incompetent, which led to her release. After Leifer was re-arrested in February 2018, Charnes agreed to sign off — after months of delay — on a new medical evaluation that refuted his initial conclusion. However, in an about face at the latest extradition hearing last month, he testified against the determinations of several medical experts that found Leifer to be mentally competent and once again asserted that she was too sick to be sent back to Australia.
It was unclear whether Charnes was the medical expert that Litzman is alleged to have pressed to prevent Leifer’s extradition, but the district psychiatrist was appointed by the deputy health minister.
The 43rd hearing in the case against Leifer is slated to be held in March following numerous attempts by the 52-year-old’s defense team to thwart the process.
Upon a request from the alleged sex abuser’s attorney, a Jerusalem District Court judge agreed to hold a bail hearing on Tuesday.
Jewish Community Watch said the suspicions against Litzman were “shocking but unfortunately not at all surprising.”
“Leifer’s defense team has used a host of underhanded tactics to drag the proceedings out as long as possible and make a mockery of Israel’s criminal justice system,” JCW said in a statement.
Sisters Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper and Nicole Meyer, who have accused Leifer of abusing them, said they hoped the development would help legal proceedings against their former principal to proceed.
“We waited patiently with the understanding that these criminal proceedings take time. To learn that this may in fact be due to corruption at the highest levels of the Israeli government is truly devastating,” the sisters said.
“We hope this will be a significant step as the pieces come together to paint a clearer picture and bring us the justice we’ve been fighting for,” they added.