Israel court rules Australia sex crimes suspect fit to stand trial

Malka Leifer, who is accused of sexual abuse of girls at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Australia, has fought a long battle against extradition from Israel

An Israeli court ruled Tuesday that an Orthodox Jewish teacher accused of child sex abuse in Australia was mentally fit to stand trial, bringing her closer to extradition after years of legal battles.

The decision was hailed by alleged victims who have campaigned for years for Malka Leifer to be sent back to face trial.

Jerusalem district court judge Chana Lomp said that she had "decided to accept the expert panel's opinion, the defendant is fit to stand trial".

Lomp set July 20, 2020 as the date for the renewal of the extradition process.

Leifer, who was not in court on Tuesday, is accused of child sex abuse while she was a teacher and principal at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne, where she had emigrated from her native Israel.

According to Australian media, Leifer is facing 74 counts of child sex abuse, but her lawyers say there were only "three actual complaints."

After allegations surfaced against her in 2008, Leifer and her family left for Israel and have been living in the settlement of Emmanuel in the occupied West Bank.

A previous extradition attempt between 2014 and 2016 failed after Leifer was hospitalised in mental institutions and expert opinions found she was not fit to stand trial.

But undercover private investigators later filmed Leifer shopping and depositing a cheque at a bank.

This prompted Israeli authorities to launch a probe into whether she was faking mental illness to avoid extradition, leading to her arrest in February 2018.

In her 40-page ruling Tuesday, Lomp noted that while Leifer had "mental problems," as the panel of experts confirmed, "they were not psychotic problems of mental illness as in its legal definition."

"My impression is that the defendant is exacerbating her mental problems and pretending to be mentally ill," Lomp wrote.

"Therefore, my conclusion is that the defendant is fit to stand trial and the extradition process on her case should be renewed."

Dassi Erlich, one of the women accusing Leifer of sexually abusing her, called Tuesday's decision "huge".

"This abusive woman has been exploiting the Israeli courts for 6 years! Intentionally creating obstacles with endless vexatious arguments that have only lengthened our ongoing trauma!", she said in a statement.

In a statement to the press following the court session, Avital Ribner-Oron, one of the prosecutors for the justice ministry's international department, said she was "pleased" with Lomp's decision.

"The removal of this obstacle that has stood in the way of any significant progress in this case, will now enable the court to bring this matter to a timely and swift conclusion," she said.

One of Leifer's lawyers, Tal Gabay, however told reporters the decision was "not clean of doubt."

"It's not a black-and-white case," he said.

Another member of the defence team, Yehuda Fried, said that while they could not appeal Tuesday's decision, they would do so when the final decision on Leifer's extradition was made.

"We hope and believe the supreme court will overturn today's district court decision," Fried said.