Israeli sex abuse suspect finally to be extradited to Australia

Twelve years after she fled to Israel, Malka Leifer is to be extradited to Australia, to stand trial over heavy suspicions of sexual abuse against minors.

al-monitor Malka Leifer, a former Australian teacher accused of dozens of cases of sexual abuse of girls at a school, arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem, Feb. 27, 2018. Photo by Ahmad Gharrabli/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 21, 2020

Finally, the unthinkable happened. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Malka Leifer is to be extradited to Australia. Justice has been served, even if it took a long time. Twelve years have passed since Leifer first arrived in Israel, and nearly seven years since the Australian authorities petitioned the government to extradite her.

On Dec. 16, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn signed the order, one day after the Supreme Court rejected her appeal of a district court ruling, which allowed for her to be extradited. “I have just signed this evening the extradition order for Malka Leifer to Australia. After many years of legal battle, it is our moral duty to allow the Australian legal authorities to put her on trial,” tweeted Nissenkorn.

Leifer has been charged with 74 counts of sexual abuse involving three sisters, who were her students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne. When police responded in 2008 to countless complaints about Leifer and began an investigation, she fled to Israel. It took until 2014, however, until the investigation was completed and Leifer was indicted. Only then did the Australian authorities request her extradition.

Dozens of hearings about the extradition have since taken place in the Jerusalem District Court over the last few years. This delay caused immeasurable suffering to the plaintiffs, who first brought the case against her.

Meanwhile, people close to Leifer in the ultra-Orthodox community, and particularly in the Ger Hassidic sect to which she belongs, launched an extensive campaign to prevent her extradition. A leader of the Ger sect had told Al-Monitor at the time that their struggle is not based on the assumption that Leifer is innocent. In fact, they would have no problem with her serving time in Israel. On the contrary, it stems from the Jewish tradition of helping Jews who are under arrest and imprisoned.

Leifer’s campaign against her extradition received powerful support from Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself a member of the Ger Hassidic group, who served as deputy health minister and health minister from 2015 to 2020. In 2019, he came under investigation for allegedly pressuring the Jerusalem District psychiatrist to write a professional opinion stating that Leifer is emotionally unfit to be extradited.

Litzman has since denied this. “I don’t even know what this is about. I helped, I tried to help, without getting into all the details,” he said at an Agudat Yisrael conference. He added that communal responsibility is important to him, and that he embraces it “with all my heart.” He tries to help as much as he can, “all in keeping with the law, of course.” The investigation against him has since been completed, and the police have recommended that he be indicted, but the state attorney general has yet to rule on the case.

That all happened about a year ago. Litzman was since promoted to full health minister (he previously served as deputy minister), even though this infuriated the Australians, who were already critical of the delay in Leifer’s extradition.

Shortly after his appointment, President of the Zionist Federation of Australia Jeremy Liebler sent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an open letter, protesting Litzman’s promotion: “I write this letter with a heavy heart. … When we met just a few months ago in Jerusalem … you assured me that your government would do everything in its power to facilitate the extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia to face justice for the very serious crimes she is accused of committing. … Yaakov Litzman is entitled to the presumption of innocence. However, promoting him to Health Minister when such serious allegations have been made and are being investigated sends a terrible message to the Australian people and most importantly to the survivors of Malka Leifer’s alleged abuse. On behalf of the Australian Jewish Community, I implore you to reconsider this appointment until the investigation into Yaakov Litzman has concluded.”

During a visit to Australia in February, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also faced criticism from the Australian government and Jewish community. Rivlin tried to calm the situation, telling Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that he is in contact with the people handling the situation. Rivlin pledged to follow the case closely when he returns to Israel, saying that he understands the hard feelings of the Australian authorities and the Jewish community, and that he plans to relay them to the relevant authorities in Israel. “We are responsible for handling this matter in an organized and efficient way, Mr. Prime Minister,” said the president. “The State of Israel will not allow anyone to use it to evade the law.”

On Dec. 17, Rivlin spoke with Australia’s Gov. Gen. David Hurley, informing him that Nissenkorn had signed the extradition order. “The recent developments are a very significant step in the proper conclusion of this difficult matter. I hope that this will lessen, if only slightly, the victims' terrible suffering,” tweeted the president.

The final decision to extradite Leifer was made by Supreme Court Justices Yitzhak Amit, Anat Baron and Ofer Grosskopf. They determined that the conditions for her extradition have been met, and that if she is convicted in Australia, she can still request to serve her sentence in Israel.

“Ever since the extradition request was submitted, the defendant took every imaginable step and made every possible argument in an effort to prevent her extradition,” wrote Justice Baron. “With this ruling, we bring closure to all the arguments. The decision that the defendant can be extradited is final. Obviously, Israel must respect extradition agreements with other countries, which are intended to promote international cooperation in reining in crime. Let all who want to flee justice know that they will not find sanctuary in Israel.”

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