'Israel-Australia Relations Irreparably Damaged': Diplomatic Row Erupts Over House Arrest for Accused Pedophile Leifer

Diplomatic sources say the case could cause a serious rift, while the Australian Jewish community threatens to cut off donations

Malka Leifer in court, Jerusalem February 14, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Australian authorities and the Australian Jewish community have relayed furious messages to Israel, saying they have lost patience with the extradition proceeding of alleged pedophile Malka Leifer.

On Wednesday, the Jerusalem District Court ordered that Leifer be released to house arrest after it found she had not been shown to be fit to stand trial.

>> Read more: How accused pedophile Malka Leifer is trying to block her extradition to Australia from Israel | Explained ■ You Wanted Bibi and Got Litzman | Opinion

"While it is not possible to determine unequivocally that Leifer pretended [that she is not fit to stand trial], an examination of matters leads us to believe she should be released to house arrest," the court ruling said.

Australian Ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan said the decision to release Leifer was "concerning."

“Australia maintains its consistent position that Malka Leifer should be extradited to face allegations of child sex abuse in Australian courts," Cannan said, adding his delegation would "continue to put our concerns directly to the Government of Israel"

A diplomatic source familiar with the case says the decision to release Leifer to house arrest was received in Australia as “the last straw” after years of delays in the extradition proceedings, and as an indication that the case could fall apart without Leifer being tried.

"This story is shocking to the Australian public, the rape of little girls seemingly being whitewashed. We have many areas of cooperation with Australia, including security, and they are in real danger," the source said. "Even as an ordinary citizen, it’s not easy to justify this move to them after the Litzman case. The Jewish community there is so angry they’re even threatening to totally halt all donations to Israel,” the source added.

In February, Israel Police recommended the indictment of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself a Ger Hasid like Malka Leifer, for allegedly using his position to influence the judicial process. Litzman is suspected of putting pressure on Jerusalem District Psychiatrist Jacob Charnes to change his opinion and to rule that Leifer is unfit to stand trial, contrary to what he claimed at first. Charnes did later submit a revised opinion.

Litzman, who is also head of the United Torah Judaism alliance and a Netanyahu ally, is suspected of attempting to influence another senior psychiatrist, although that professional finally ruled that Leifer can be extradited.

Yaakov Litzman speaks to the press before the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem May 26, 2019
\ POOL New/ REUTERS

According to the same diplomatic sources, this directly threatens the reciprocity clause in the extradition agreement between the two countries.  “In Australia, they’re even asking now whether someone paid off the district court. That’s how profound the crisis of trust is,” the sources add.

Leifer's release was postponed for 48 hours, so the prosecution could appeal the ruling. The International Department of the State Prosecutor’s Office did file to appeal the decision with the Supreme Court, which is expected to hold a hearing on Thursday.  

Over the years, the former headmistress' lawyers tried to claim that she was not mentally fit to face trial in order to prevent her extradition to Australia, but psychiatrists determined in 2018 that these claims were false and that Leifer was capable of facing trial. Since then, she has been incarcerated at the Neve Tirza prison. Her lawyers called Thursday's decision "extremely dramatic."

"This means she will be released. A house arrest is just a precautionary measure until we fully complete the process," her laywers said. "Then Ms. Leifer will return home and get the treatment she deserves, like any other sick individual. We hope that the prosecution accepts this and doesn't try to appeal."

But Jewish Community Watch, the organization dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community that has been accompanying the alleged victims, spoke out in the wake of the court ruling.

Demonstrators against the Malka Leifer legal process, Jerusalem, March 2019
Emil Salman

"We are stunned by the decision that was made to send sex offender Malka Leifer to house arrest. This is a dangerous woman who is making a laughing stock out of the court," the group said in a statement. "Our organization provided clear evidence which testifies that Leifer leads a normal life, and many psychiatric opinions have reaffirmed this. We regret this decision and our hearts are with the victims."

Leifer, who holds Israeli citizenship, was the principal of an all-girls ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne. She is accused of targeting three sisters who were her students, and faces 74 charges of indecent acts and rape. After the accusations against her emerged in 2008, she fled to Israel, and in 2014, Australia filed a request for extradition. Since then, the process has been under discussion in Israeli courts.

Last week's hearing was the 57th. The Jerusalem District Court decided to open a panel of experts to determine whether Leifer is mentally fit to stand trial. Following this decision, Leifer's attorneys contacted the courts and asked that she be released to house arrest.