The six-year fight to bring Malka Leifer back to Australia to face justice

Malka Leifer has been deemed mentally fit to be extradited to Australia, but it could be many more months before she is sent back to face trial in Victoria.

Malka Leifer in 2018.

Malka Leifer in 2018. Source: Getty

After more than 60 court hearings over many years, an Israeli court has finally found to face trial.

Tuesday's ruling is a major development in a campaign led by three sisters to bring Ms Leifer back to Australia.

So why has it taken so long to get to this point and what's next in the case?

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Who is Malka Leifer and what is she accused of?

Ms Leifer, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen, was the principal of Melbourne's Adass Israel School in the early 2000s.

The school services the Adass Israel community, which is considered the most ultra-orthodox Jewish sect in the country.

The outside of the Adass Israel Shool in Melbourne.
The outside of the Adass Israel Shool in Melbourne. Source: Getty


In 2008, rumours alleging that Ms Leifer had abused former student Dassi Erlich started to circulate in the community.

Soon after these allegations surfaced, the school bought Ms Leifer and her family plane tickets to Israel where she has remained since.

Malka Leifer in Israel

After an investigation by Victoria Police, Ms Leifer was charged with 74 counts of rape and child abuse.

Extradition attempts in Israel between 2014 and 2016 failed after Ms Leifer was hospitalised in mental institutions and expert opinions found she was not fit to stand trial.

But undercover private investigators later filmed Ms Leifer shopping and depositing a cheque at a bank.

Malka Leifer in an Israeli court.
Malka Leifer in an Israeli court. Source: Getty


This prompted Israeli authorities to launch a probe into whether she was faking mental illness to avoid extradition, leading to her arrest in February 2018.

But after more than 60 court hearings, the case appeared to be perennially stalled.

All throughout, Ms Leifer has continued to deny all the allegations against her.

The campaign to bring her back

Several of Ms Leifer's accusers became increasingly vocal over the years and mobilised significant political support.

Ms Erlich and her sisters Nicole Meyer and Ellie Sapper, who also claim they are victims of Ms Leifer, spearheaded a campaign to bring the former school principal back to Australia.

The trio travelled to Israel to meet government officials, while in Australia they rallied support from the likes of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Mr Baillieu, who joined the sisters on a trip to Israel, last year called the Israeli justice system a "farce".

"They have been tortured physically and personally through the [alleged] crimes and now they're being tortured over more than 10 years by a justice system that's completely and utterly failed, not only the girls, but Australians and Israelis," he said.

"It just seems to be never-ending and we just want an end date. I don't think there are any words to describe our frustration at this point."

Fit to be extradited

On Tuesday, the District Court of Jerusalem accepted a psychiatric panel's unanimous decision Ms Leifer was fit to face a hearing to determine if she should be extradited to Australia.

Jerusalem District Court Judge Chana Lomp said that she had "decided to accept the expert panel's opinion, the defendant is fit to stand trial".



In her 40-page ruling, Justice Lomp said that while Ms Leifer had "mental problems," as the panel of experts confirmed, "they 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," Ms Lomp wrote.

"Therefore, my conclusion is that the defendant is fit to stand trial and the extradition process on her case should be renewed."



In response, Ms Erlich told reporters on Wednesday: "This process has really bruised us but it has not broken us".

Ms Meyer said: "Six years we have been fighting this battle about her mental illness.

"It took 66 court hearings to hear what we should have heard in court hearing number one."

Attorney-General Christian Porter also welcomed the news.

"It is a positive sign and means that formal extradition proceedings can now lawfully commence, subject to any orders relevant to any possible appeal."

An extradition hearing is now slated for 20 July.



A resolution in sight?

While the alleged victims and their supporters celebrated Tuesday's decision, an international law expert told SBS News the case could still drag on. 

"I don't think we're approaching any sort of resolution ... I would be exceptionally surprised to see the Malka Leifer case resolved this year and her actually back in Australia this year to face a Victorian trial," Professor Donald Rothwell of the Australian National University said.

"It's resolved one of the issues that's associated with the extradition [and that is] the question of whether Malka Leifer has a fit mental state to be subject to extradition."

Ms Leifer's legal team has already indicated they will appeal Tuesday's decision to Israel's Supreme Court.

But Jewish abuse victim advocate Manny Waks told SBS News that does not concern him.

"Each time we have gone to the Supreme Court, it has come up in our favour, so that is a much safer playing ground for us."



Then there is the extradition hearing itself before a final sign-off by the Israeli government.

Professor Rothwell said there are several other issues the legal team could raise that would pose hurdles along the way.

"The issue could be raised if it's appropriate to extradite someone from one country to another in the context of COVID-19, with any health issues that they may be exposed to as a result of the extradition."

He also said Ms Leifer's legal team could raise the involvement of high-level Australian politicians in the case.

"Those commentaries can be unhelpful as they can be seen, at least in Israel, as politicising the extradition and raising questions for an Israeli court as to whether Malka Leifer, who is an Israeli, will receive a fair trial in Australia," he said.



And he said moving forward, Ms Leifer's legal team has the capacity to appeal any other legal determinations that are made.

"Based on the way in which the case has progressed to date, one would have to presume that [Ms Leifer's legal team] will seek to explore every legal avenue to do so."

Additional reporting: AAP, AFP

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

Anyone seeking information or support relating to sexual abuse can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831 or Blue Knot on 1300 657 380.


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7 min read
Published 27 May 2020 at 6:25pm
By Nick Baker
Source: SBS