An Israeli court has ruled that the alleged child sex abuser Malka Leifer is mentally fit to stand trial and can be extradited to Australia, where the former Melbourne headteacher is wanted on 74 sexual assault charges.
The pivotal ruling comes six years after Australian police first filed an extradition request, and follows dozens of hearings and setbacks in a dramatic court saga in Jerusalem that has deeply strained relations between Israel and Australia.
“I decided to accept the expert panel’s opinion; she’s fit to stand trial,” Judge Chana Miriam Lomp said of a psychiatric board recommendation from January that accused Leifer of faking mental illness to avoid extradition.
Dassi Erlich, one of three Australian sisters who have accused Leifer of abuse during her time as principal of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school, said that she had “too many emotions to process”.
Leifer was absent from the district court on Tuesday, although three of her family members were present. Before she can be extradited, a hearing will be held on 20 July. Yehuda Fried, a lawyer representing Leifer, who has denied the charges, said he hoped to appeal to the high court to overturn the decision.
Manny Waks, the founder of Kol V’Oz, an Israel-based organisation against child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, said outside court that he had expected the defence to appeal, although he added the ruling was “an absolutely momentous occasion”.
“Malka Leifer has been faking her illness for years and it is because of this dogged pursuit for justice by her three courageous alleged victims that we are here today,” he said of the Erlich sisters.
“It is absolutely incredible that it’s taken so many years to get to where we are today, and finally we are here,” he added. “Sure, Malka Leifer is not yet on the plane, and there is some way to go. But what we can see now is that she is fit to face justice.”
The ruling was widely praised by officials in both countries, including the Israeli ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, who described it as “truly wonderful”.
Josh Burns, Federal Member of Parliament for Macnamara, the Australian district in the state of Victoria where the alleged abuse occurred, said: “We will all keep fighting until Leifer is in a Victorian courtroom facing justice.”
If extradited, Leifer is expected to face charges including indecent assault and rape. She returned to Israel in 2008 after the sexual offence allegations emerged, and the ensuing court case has been bogged down by mental illness claims.
However, after being released, Israeli police rearrested Leifer in 2018 on suspicion of obstruction of justice. Videos taken by a private investigator and shared with the Guardian appeared to show her living a “normal, healthy” life.
Suggestions of foul play have also beset the case. Israel’s former health minister, Ya’acov Litzman, who leads an ultra-Orthodox party, was accused of pressuring doctors to falsify psychiatric evaluations that would deem Leifer unfit to face trial. Police have recommended charging Litzman with fraud and breach of trust.
Litzman, who is housing minister in the new government, has denied any wrongdoing.