The Jerusalem District Court ruled Tuesday that accused pedophile Malka Leifer is mentally fit to stand trial, in effect renewing a stalled extradition process to Australia.
The date for Leifer's next court session is slated for July 20, the court announced. Her attorney, Tal Gabay, said the decision raises "some doubts," as the defense team is expected to appeal it.
The Australian government welcomed the new development in a long-running affair that has put a strain on relations between the two countries.
Leifer fled to Israel in 2008 after being indicted in Australia on 74 counts of rape and sexual assault. She was located by the Israel Police in 2014 and has since claimed that she is mentally unfit to stand trial, halting her extradition process.
Leifer is accused of sexually abusing three sisters who were her students while she served as the headmistress of a Jewish school in Australia. She is currently held in custody in Israel amid an ongoing extradition battle that has strained relations between the two countries.
Dassi Erlich, one of Leifer's victims, celebrated the ruling on Twitter, "Too many emotions to process!!! This is huge!" She wrote. "This abusive woman has been exploiting Israeli courts for 6 years! Intentionally creating obstacles, endless vexatious arguments - only lengthening our ongoing trama!"
Australia's attorney general greeted the announcement as "positive news," saying "the Australian Government remains strongly committed to ensuring that justice is served in this case."
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"To achieve that, it is appropriate and remains the Government's strong view that Ms Leifer is ultimately extradited to stand trial in Australia on the 74 counts of child sexual abuse against her," Christian Porter said in a statement.
The statement went on to say that the attorney general "respected Israel's judicial processes and that, given today's judgement could be the subject of an appeal, it would not be appropriate to comment further."
Years of delay in extradition proceedings slowly simmered into a diplomatic row between Israel and Australia. The perception that some in Israel's highest political echelon were protecting a known child abuser angered a frustrated local Jewish community and the general public in the country, which generally enjoyed warm ties with Israel.
Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said the ruling was "a welcome and meaningful step, if much delayed."
"That said, it is likely that Leifer’s lawyers will appeal this decision," he added. "We continue to urge the Israeli judicial system to expedite matters. Leifer has been credibly accused of serious crimes and must face trial. The Australian Jewish community stands shoulder to shoulder with the victims of Leifer’s alleged abuse."
Activists and politicians in Israel also welcomed the news.
"Finally, after a process that dragged on for years, the court has ruled that Leifer is fit for extradition," Yamina lawmaker and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote on Twitter. "She will certainly appeal to the Supreme Court. We must expedite this process," Shaked wrote, "This could cause major damage to Israel-Australia relations as well as severe harm to the victims."
"Throughout this exhausting process we have watched three incredibly courageous survivors wait through years of hearings, delays, and stalling tactics," said Shana Aaronson, director of Magen, an Israeli organization that has supported the alleged victims. "We are hopeful that they will finally have a chance to face her [Malka Leifer] in court, and that victims everywhere will be encouraged to know that justice is possible."
In 2016, after receiving an expert opinion, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Leifer is unfit to stand trial and halted extradition proceedings.
In January, an Israeli panel of expert psychiatrists said that Leifer is indeed fit to stand trial, contradicting previous opinions.
Last year, the police recommended to indict Israel's former health minister Yaakov Litzman, who is from the same Ger hasidic sect as Leifer, for allegedly using his clout to influence the psychiatric opinion in her case and prevent her extradition.