The arrival in Israel this week of three sisters campaigning for the extradition of Malka Leifer – the principal accused of sexually abusing students at an Australian ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in the 2000s – will not alter the fact that the accused remains mentally unfit for trial, said her lawyer on Thursday.
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Leifer’s condition is a chronic one without any real hope of change, attorney Yehuda Fried told Haaretz.
The Israeli-Australian ran the Adass Israel girls’ school in Melbourne from 2003 to 2008, until she left when accusations surfaced that she had sexually abused between eight and 15 of her students. She fled to Israel some 24 hours after the allegations became public in March 2008, but now faces 74 counts of indecent assault and rape back in Australia.
Although she was taken into custody in Israel in 2014 after pressure from the Australian government, she was later released to house arrest.
“The position the Israeli government has to tell everyone is ‘Don’t worry, [extradition] will come, but I don’t think so. It will never come,” Fried said.
In June 2016, after hearing testimony from a state-appointed psychiatrist that Leifer was unfit to stand trial, Jerusalem District Court declared that the sides had agreed to halt extradition efforts until she was better, citing a law that permits stopping proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial.
Fried told Haaretz that Leifer is disconnected and despondent, unable to carry on an ordinary conversation. She’s so difficult to speak to that in his three years of representing her, they have only met a few times, Fried said.
“In ultra-Orthodox society, if you have a mental illness you have to hide it,” Fried said. “That’s why she has hidden her problem for many years. But she has been seeing psychiatrists since she was 17,” he added.
The three sisters, who all allege that Leifer abused them when they studied at the girls’ school, are lobbying for Leifer’s extradition to Australia so she can stand trial in Melbourne.
“I want them to really understand what we are going through and that every day this lady is running free, running wild, it’s really traumatic for us,” one of the sisters, Elly Sapper, told the Australian Broadcasting Company.
On Wednesday, the three met with Knesset members, asking them to put pressure on the authorities to approve Leifer’s extradition. They will meet with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to discuss the case next week.
Two of the sisters, Sapper and Dassi Erlich, have already met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an effort to gain his support. He reportedly said he would discuss the matter with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Israel next week.
Leifer is no longer under house arrest and currently lives in Immanuel, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. She has court-mandated, regular visits for treatment at a public medical clinic in Jerusalem, Fried said. She is also receiving mental health treatment privately, he added.
According to Fried, it was determined by the psychiatrists who examined her that long-term hospitalization will not help her, and this is why she was authorized to receive treatment on an outpatient basis.
He said there are no restrictions on her movement, aside from not being allowed to leave Israel, and that there are also no orders for her not to be in contact with children. Fried said Leifer has little interaction with the outside world and mostly stays home.
But in May, Erlich told ABC she had been disturbed to see photos of Leifer supposedly taken at a religious festival in northern Israel.
Extradition proceedings have been repeatedly delayed, several times because Leifer checked into a psychiatric hospital before scheduled hearings. Critics have charged it was her way of avoiding going to court. Fried said it was because her already fragile mental health worsens around the stress of upcoming court appearances.
Fried said the presence of three of her accusers in Israel would have no effect. “The court is not a public relations service that is influenced by public opinion,” he said, “especially in this situation where the decision of the court is based on objective medical evidence.”
But Manny Waks disagreed. He is an advocate for child sexual abuse survivors and the founder of Kol v’Oz, an Israeli nonprofit aimed at preventing sexual abuse within Jewish communities worldwide.
“This is a massive new development,” he said of the sisters’ visit for the launch of their extradition campaign. “We have not seen such a case where the victims themselves take on an alleged perpetrator by almost taking the law into their own hands by leading a public advocacy campaign to change the status quo,” he added.
But as long as medical experts say Leifer is not mentally fit to stand trial, she will not be allowed to be extradited. In the extradition hearing last year, Jerusalem District Court Judge Amnon Cohen cited a law that permits stopping proceedings when a defendant is deemed unfit to stand trial.
“The district psychologist said she has a chronic, ongoing medical situation with no chance of changing. So I don’t see why this decision is in doubt,” Fried said.
By law, Leifer must be given a psychiatric assessment every six months to assess her mental state and fitness to stand trial, Fried added.
Nicole Mayer, the third sister in Israel leading the extradition efforts (#bringleiferback), said they are determined to leave Israel having accomplished something. “If that doesn’t happen, I won’t know where to turn next,” Mayer told ABC.