Israeli Accused of Sex Abuse in Australia Can Be Extradited, Court Says

By Isabel Kershner

Australia has been seeking Malka Leifer’s extradition for six years so she can face 74 charges of sexual assault stemming from her time as the principal of an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne.

Malka Leifer, center, going to court in Jerusalem in 2018. She has said she cannot face trial in Australia because she is mentally ill.
Malka Leifer, center, going to court in Jerusalem in 2018. She has said she cannot face trial in Australia because she is mentally ill.Credit...Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM — A former principal of a Jewish girls’ school in Australia accused of sexually assaulting her pupils can be extradited to face trial there, a court in Israel ruled on Monday, bringing a yearslong legal saga that has strained relations between the two countries to a potential close.

Australia has been seeking the extradition of the former principal, Malka Leifer, for more than six years on 74 charges of sexual assault on former students in the school. At the heart of the case are allegations of three sisters who say they were abused while attending the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne in the early 2000s.

“This is a victory for justice!” Dassi Erlich, one of the sisters, said in a post on Facebook. “A victory not just for us, but for all survivors. Exhaling years of holding our breath!”

Ms. Leifer’s lawyers in Israel had argued, among other things, that she was mentally unfit to stand trial, but after years of private and police investigations and examinations by several psychiatric panels, the Israeli courts eventually ruled that she had faked mental illness.

Ms. Leifer now has 30 days in which to appeal the decision to Israel’s Supreme Court. The Israeli justice minister must approve any extradition, but that was not expected to present a hurdle.

“After years of torment, the victims of the crime will finally be entitled to justice,” the justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, wrote in a Twitter post soon after Monday’s court decision, saying he would work to expedite the extradition proceedings as much as possible.

In an interview by phone, Ms. Erlich, who was with her two sisters, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer, said they were all elated and relieved at the decision.

“To have so many twists and turns, and cover-ups, it’s made this moment huge for us,” she said. “We’re all just taking it in.”

Ms. Leifer, an Israeli citizen, moved to Australia in 2001, according to court documents. The accusations relate to a period between 2004 and 2008, while she was principal of the school, according to the Israeli judicial authorities.

She fled to Israel in 2008 when the accusations against her first emerged. Australia formally requested her extradition in 2014, and court proceedings got underway in Israel that year.

The case was interrupted two years later on the basis of a psychiatric report assessing that Ms. Leifer was not fit to stand trial. But after dozens of hearings, the Jerusalem District Court determined in May that Ms. Leifer was fit to face renewed extradition proceedings based on evidence and previous rulings that she had been feigning mental incompetence for years. She was under house arrest or jailed for much of the time from 2014 onward.

In Monday’s ruling, Judge Chana Miriam Lomp wrote that Ms. Leifer had “exploited the innocence” of the sisters as well as her status as the school principal.

“Today is an important and significant day for the rule of law, for international cooperation and most importantly for those who were victims of Malka Leifer’s crimes,” Israel’s Justice Ministry said in a statement released after Monday’s decision.

The statement added that Ms. Leifer had “made every effort to delay the proceedings and avoid extradition, including repeated attempts to convince the court that she was not competent to undergo extradition proceedings” but that the court had finally put an end to those efforts.

Ms. Leifer’s lawyers, Tal Gabai and Yehuda Fried, issued their own statement, vowing to contest the decision in the Supreme Court.

“Today’s decision of the District Court is not the final word,” the statement read, adding that there were serious reservations about Ms. Leifer’s ability to stand trial. It also noted that prison service experts were still assessing her mental state and that she was receiving “significant antipsychotic treatment” in the prison where she is being held.

Manny Waks, the head of Kol V’Oz, an Israeli organization that works on behalf of Jewish survivors of child sex abuse, noted that Israel’s Supreme Court had so far ruled in favor of the prosecution throughout the Leifer case and said it was “simply a matter of time” before she was sent to Australia.

“I’m still hopeful that this will happen by the end of 2020,” he said in a statement. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure justice prevails.”

Yaakov Litzman, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox minister and former health minister, has also been implicated in the case. Mr. Litzman was accused by the Israeli police of pressuring psychiatrists tasked with assessing Ms. Leifer’s condition to state that she was not fit to stand trial.

The police have recommended that Mr. Litzman, who belongs to the same Hasidic sect that Ms. Leifer is associated with, be charged with fraud and breach of trust because of his interference. Mr. Litzman, who is currently serving as housing minister, has denied any wrongdoing.

Ms. Leifer’s lawyers had also argued against her extradition on grounds that she would not be able to maintain her ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in an Australian prison. The Israeli judge rejected that claim, saying it would grant immunity from extradition to entire populations.

Despite the friendly relations between the two countries, the Australian government has on occasion expressed impatience with the seemingly sluggish pace of the Israeli justice system.

After meeting two of the three sisters in October 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said in a statement that he would press the issue with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that the government would be “unswerving in seeking justice in this matter.”

David Southwick, a lawmaker in the Parliament for the state of Victoria, welcomed Monday’s decision, saying it marked “the end of an excruciating delay for justice.”

The long, drawn-out case has also caused embarrassment for Jewish people in Australia.

Ms. Meyer, another of the sisters who have accused Ms. Leifer of assault, said she hoped other sexual abuse survivors would find strength in their persistence.

“We didn’t give up for justice,” she said. “It was so hard along the way.”

Damien Cave contributed reporting from Sydney, Australia.