On Tuesday morning, the Jerusalem District Court will hold a decisive hearing in a case that has cast a heavy shadow over Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), while bringing to an unprecedented nadir Israel’s relations with Australia’s government and its Jewish community. Senior psychiatrists are expected to testify as to whether Malka Leifer — who fled Australia for Israel after being charged with the rape and sexual assault of students at the ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne where she was the principal — is mentally fit for extradition to Australia in order to stand trial.
Leifer escaped to Israel in 2008, after learning that three sisters, former students at the school, went to senior staff members with their accusations and described events they said took place on school premises. Australian authorities began investigating and eventually charged Leifer with 74 counts of rape and sexual assault against Dassi Ehrlich, Nicole Mayer and Elly Sapper. In 2012, Australia submitted an extradition request, based on its treaty with Israel, but Leifer was not located by Israeli police until 2014. Ever since, she has waged a legal battle to avoid extradition, claiming that she is not mentally fit for trial. Dozens of hearings have been held on the matter in a number of Israeli courts. The Australian authorities, as well as the international department of the Israeli prosecution, say that Leifer’s mental fitness should be ascertained in Australia.
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In February, Litzman was questioned on suspicion of interfering in the preparation of professional reports in Leifer’s case, in order to prevent her extradition. After an investigation, the police recommended charging the deputy health minister with witness-tampering, fraud and breach of trust. He is currently waiting for prosecutors to decide whether to proceed with an indictment.
Anger in Australia has only grown since the allegations against Litzman were made public. The Jewish community and government there believe his alleged interference casts doubt on the integrity of the legal process in Israel and that the state is evading its commitment to comply with the extradition treaty. Prime Minister Scott Morrison met the three sisters and parliamentarians are working in their behalf. This week it was reported that as a result of this affair, Australia refused to cooperate with an Israeli delegation at an event devoted to a campaign against sexual exploitation of children, held in Geneva at Australia’s initiative. A diplomatic source said that the Leifer affair was causing serious and irreversible damage to relations between the two countries, as reported by Noa Landau in Haaretz.
Leifer is entitled to a fair trial, and Israel is obliged to afford her one. However, the serious allegations against Litzman and the unusual drawing-out of deliberations about this case while violating an international extradition treaty, due to an examination of mental fitness which could have taken place in Australia, cast a shadow on Israel’s justice system. Israel should not serve as a city of refuge for criminal suspects.