Malka Leifer: Rape-accused ex-principal fit for extradition to Australia

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In this file photo taken on February 27, 2018 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 JerusalemImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Malka Leifer arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on Tuesday

An Israeli woman facing 74 child sex charges in Australia is mentally fit to face extradition, a court has ruled.

Malka Leifer, the former principal of a Jewish girls' school in Melbourne, fled to Israel in 2008 after accusations were raised against her.

Extradition hearings were delayed for two years as Ms Leifer, 54, said panic attacks prevented her coming to court.

But a Jerusalem district court judge said expert opinion was followed in ruling Ms Leifer fit for the process.

Ms Leifer denies the accusations.

Judge Chana Lomp set 20 July 2020 as the date for a renewal of the extradition process to take the suspect back from Israel to Australia.

Her accusers, who have waived their right to anonymity, spoke to media in Melbourne on Wednesday. The three sisters - Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer- welcomed the "huge moment" in their six-year legal battle.

"I hope that this moment will show all those survivors across the world they too have a voice and give them the encouragement to speak out," Ms Sapper said.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Alleged victims Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer in Melbourne

The case has dragged on for more than five years, damaging relations between the two countries.

Dave Sharma, Australia's former ambassador to Israel, said in October the delay in extraditing Ms Leifer was "not only an affront to justice but deeply traumatic for the victims of this abuse".

Ms Leifer, who was not in court on Tuesday, allegedly raped and indecently assaulted girls at the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne, Australia.

Australia attempted to extradite her between 2014 and 2016, but the attempt failed after Ms Leifer was found mentally unfit for trial.

Undercover private investigators later filmed her shopping and depositing a cheque at a bank, leading Israeli authorities to investigate and arrest her in February 2018.

In January this year, a panel of psychiatrists found that Ms Leifer was faking her mental illness to avoid extradition, paving the way for Tuesday's decision.

In a 40-page ruling, Judge Lomp said Ms Leifer's mental problems "were not psychotic problems of mental illness as in its legal definition".

"My impression is that the defendant is exacerbating her mental problems and pretending to be mentally ill," Judge Lomp wrote. "Therefore, my conclusion is that the defendant is fit to stand trial and the extradition process on her case should be renewed."

One of the alleged victims, Dassi Erlich, pointed out that the decision had come on the 66th court hearing for the case - and the battle had been draining for all three sisters.

"We watched again and again as she first abused us and lied to us and used the same tactics in the Israeli court system. It still feels surreal to hear those words that Malka Leifer is fit to stand trial," she said.

One of Ms Leifer's lawyers, Tal Gabay, however told reporters the decision was "not clean of doubt". "It's not a black-and-white case," he said.

Yehuda Fried, another member of the defence team, said they hoped Israel's supreme court would overturn the decision.