The hearing on Australia’s request for the extradition of accused sex offender Malka Leifer had been scheduled for Tuesday in a Jerusalem District Court. The ordeal, ongoing for over a decade, includes countless court hearings, unprecedented damage to Israel’s ties with Australia's Jewish community and government, and most recently, major suspicions that Israel's Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman – who like Leifer, is member of the Ger branch of Hassidic Judaism – exerted pressure on psychiatrists to deem the suspect mentally unfit to stand trial and extradition.
Instead of a decisive hearing, the day brought another twist in the ongoing circus of the Leifer case. A team of senior psychiatrists was due to present the court with the new evaluation on the mental fitness of the former principal of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne, who had fled to Israel in 2008 after being accused of raping and sexually assaulting her students. But someone on the team of psychiatrists "forgot" to inform the court that they hadn’t managed to submit their professional opinion on time.
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District Judge Chana Miriam Lomp told a courtroom packed with reporters that the doctors "hadn't noticed" that the hearing was scheduled for Tuesday. As a result, the date for submission of the psychiatrists’ evaluation was deferred for another month.
This never-ending saga is shaking the Australian Jewish community, and public opinion there in general, causing diplomatic damage to the country’s usually warm relations with Israel. Even if Leifer is eventually found fit for extradition and if Israel’s justice minister signs off on the order, the case is expected to be further delayed by appeals to the Supreme Court.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself met with Leifer's alleged victims, the three sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper. A large number of parliament members who have worked on the three women’s behalf have also met with them.
This week, Haaretz reported that as a result of the case, Australia refused to cooperate with Israeli representatives in Geneva at an event on the prevention of the sexual exploitation of children. A diplomatic source further confirmed to Haaretz that the Leifer case has caused serious, irreversible damage to the relations between Israel and Australia.
The case began in 2008, when Leifer fled to Israel after learning that three sisters who had been her students had complained to their former school. This happened following Erlich's psychological treatment. Authorities in Australia began investigating the allegations, later filing a 74-count indictment for the rape and sexual assault of the three women.
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In 2012, Australia invoked an extradition treaty with Israel requesting that she be sent back to Australia. Only in 2014, Israeli police located her in Israel, and she began a legal battle against the request on the grounds that she was mentally unfit to be extradited.
The staff of the international department of Israel’s state prosecutor’s office, responsible for overseeing compliance with Israel’s international agreements, has argued that determining Leifer’s mental state was not central to the decision to extradite her, because such psychiatric finding could also be made in Australia.
In February 2019, Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was investigated by the police on suspicion that he exerted pressure on psychiatrists to deem the suspect mentally unfit. Both Litzman and Leifer belong to the Ger Hassidic group, a closed ultra-Orthodox community where sexual abuse is generally kept away from public scrutiny.
The police recommended that Litzman be charged with witness tampering, fraud and breach of trust, and he is now awaiting the prosecutor's decision on the indictment filing. The investigation removed the last vestige of trust that Australia had in Israeli authorities.
Of course, Leifer is entitled to a fair trial and Australians also believe in an independent judiciary. But the suspicions against Litzman and the question of whether it was appropriate to consider Leifer’s mental fitness before extradition have cast doubt on the propriety of the legal proceedings.
Australia has now stepped up its demand and asked Israel to honor its extradition agreement so that Leifer’s mental state can be examined in Australia. The circus of foot-dragging in court on Tuesday has further discredited Israel's conduct.
The three sisters are also entitled to justice. The Jerusalem district court should have firmly rebuked the psychiatrists and expedited the time frame in the case. The prosecutor’s office also needs to expedite its decision in the case of Litzman. The new psychiatric opinion should be credible beyond any reasonable doubt, and that cannot be possible as long as those psychiatrists’ ultimate boss in the medical system is himself a suspect.