Sexual abuse suspect fit to stand trial in Australia, says Israeli court

After six years of discussions and contradictory psychiatric opinions, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Malka Leifer, a suspect in Australian sexual assault cases, is mentally fit to stand trial.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images.

By Rina Bassist

May 27, 2020

The Jerusalem District Court ruled May 26 that former school principal Malka Leifer, suspected of sexually assaulting students of hers in Melbourne, is mentally fit to stand trial. This opens the way for Leifer to be extradited to Australia. The court is scheduled to hold a second hearing July 20 to discuss her extradition. In parallel, her lawyer announced that Leier would  appeal the ruling to the High Court.

‘’The court has determined the defendant was simulating her inability to function and is fit to stand trial,” wrote the judges, adding that Leifer does not suffer from mental illness "in a legal sense."

Leifer, who holds both Israeli and Australian nationalities, fled to Israel in 2008 shortly after allegations against her surfaced. She faces 74 counts of child sexual abuse involving three sisters who were her students at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school she directed. Australia demanded in 2014 that Leifer be extradited to stand trial in Melbourne, but her lawyers claimed that she was mentally ill and unfit to stand trial.

In 2016, an Israeli court ruled that Leifer was not fit to stand trial. But following the introduction of further evidence and more police investigation, the issue was examined again in 2018, when the court said Leifer was pretending to be mentally ill in order to escape trial. Over the years, the courts have convened for some 60 sessions on the issue.

In September 2019, faced with contradictory psychiatric opinions, the court appointed a special panel of experts to rule on Leifer’s mental health. The May 26 decision by the court should close the issue when it comes to Leifer’s extradition.

All this follows a further complication in March, when Australia media accused Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of interfering with the psychiatric evaluation process, shielding Leifer and standing in the way of her extradition. Litzman denied the accusations.

Australian authorities have on several occasions expressed frustration over Israel’s reluctance to extradite Leifer. While he was visiting the Australian capital, Canberra, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin promised Feb. 25 to raise the Leifer case with his country's legal system if her extradition case continued to stall in the courts. Josh Burns, a member of parliament from the Labor Party who represents Melbourne's Macnamara division where Leifer’s old school is situated, said on the occasion of Rivlin’s visit, "This matter has dragged on far too long. These victims deserve justice and I will continue to fight until Malka Leifer is back in Australia facing trial." Israeli diplomats have repeatedly warned that the prolongation of the matter has been causing substantial damage to the bilateral ties between the countries.

Former Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is quite familiar with the case, said the appeals process must be expedited, saying, “Great damage has been done to Israeli-Australian relations and great harm to the victims.’’

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