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Israeli appears in Australian court on child abuse charges

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) – A former school principal extradited from Israel after a six-year legal battle appeared in an Australian court on Monday to hear evidence behind child sexual abuse charges against her.

A jail hearing has started in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to decide whether there is enough evidence against Malka Leifer to justify the charges going to court.

The 54-year-old faces 74 charges, including rape and indecent assault, while she was head of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne between 2004 and 2008.

Sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper are among the 10 witnesses who are due to testify at the hearing, which is expected to take place until next Monday.

Last year, the sisters obtained a court order allowing them to speak publicly and under their real name about their allegations of abuse by Leifer.

The Associated Press does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the siblings have spoken publicly about their charges as part of their campaign to force Leifer back to Australia.

Leifer was extradited from Israel in January. The protracted court case and repeated delays in his extradition had drawn criticism from Australian officials as well as the country’s Jewish leaders.

As charges against her began to surface in 2008, Leifer, of Israeli descent, dropped out of school and returned to Israel. The two countries have an extradition treaty, but critics, including Leifer’s accusers, said Israeli authorities dragged out the case, while Leifer claimed she was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Last year, an Israeli psychiatric panel determined Leifer was lying about his mental state, triggering extradition. In December, Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a final appeal against his extradition and Israel’s justice minister signed the order to send him to Australia.

Witnesses who testified this week did so in camera. Only a magistrate, lawyers, court staff and Leifer were allowed to view the proceedings.

The siblings had asked to testify in person, but current pandemic restrictions mean the entire hearing must be conducted online.

Leifer is appearing by video link from Melbourne women’s prison, the Dame Phyllis Frost Center.

She is charged with 47 counts of indecent assault, 13 counts of indecent act with a child, 11 counts of rape and three counts of sexual penetration of a child. It was not immediately clear what the maximum sentence she could face if found guilty.

On Monday, the court heard that no Jewish witnesses would testify in Thursday’s hearing, which is Yom Kippur, a great holy day. Leifer was also granted permission not to appear in court that day, but to continue the proceedings in his absence.

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