JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities on Monday extradited a former teacher accused of sexually abusing her former students in Australia, capping a six-year legal battle that had strained relations between the two governments and antagonized Australia's Jewish community.
Malka Leifer, who is wanted on 74 charges of child sex abuse in Australia, was placed on a flight early in the day, several hours before Israel was to close its international airport to nearly all air traffic due to a raging coronavirus outbreak. Israeli media photographed Leifer boarding a plane at Ben Gurion Airport, her ankles and wrists shackled. Her lawyer, Nick Kaufman, confirmed the extradition.
Leifer a former teacher accused of sexually abusing several former students at a Jewish school in Melbourne, had been fighting extradition since 2014. Leifer, 54, maintains her innocence and the protracted court case and repeated delays over her extradition had drawn criticism from Australian officials as well as the country's Jewish leaders.
The Hebrew-language news site Ynet reported that Leifer boarded a flight to Frankfurt, where she was to transfer to another flight bound for Australia.
Three sisters — Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper — have accused Leifer of abusing them while they were students at a Melbourne ultra-Orthodox school. There are said to be other victims. The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters have spoken publicly about their allegations against Leifer.
Manny Waks, head of Voice against Child Sex Abuse, an organization representing Leifer's victims, told The Associated Press that it was "a momentous day for justice and incredible for her alleged victims in particular, as well as sending an incredible message to other survivors that justice will ultimately prevail."
"From our perspective, it has taken way too long for this process to unfold. We've seen over 70 hearings to date," Waks said.
Erlich simply wrote on her Facebook page: "Leifer is on the plane to Australia."
In Australia, the news of Leifer's extradition was welcomed by lawmakers and Jewish community leaders.
Dave Sharma, a member of parliament and former Australian ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter that it was "welcome news for all who care about justice in this case."
Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said "this protracted saga" has come to a close. "For too many survivors of child sex abuse, justice is denied. But now, 12 long years after she fled Australia, Leifer is on her way back to face her accusers in court," he said in a statement.
Israel has extradition treaties with Europe and nine other countries, including the U.S. and Australia, and routinely extradites citizens accused of serious crimes. Leifer's lawyers have said they will request she serve any prison sentence in Israel, in line with Israeli law.
As accusations against her began surfacing in 2008, Israeli-born Leifer left the school and returned to Israel, where she has lived since. Critics, including Leifer's alleged victims, had accused Israeli authorities of dragging out the case for far too long, while Leifer claimed she was mentally unfit to stand trial.
Israeli police also have recommended charges of fraud and breach of trust against former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman for suspicions he pressured ministry employees to skew Leifer's psychiatric evaluations in her favor. Litzman, a powerful ultra-Orthodox politician, denies wrongdoing.
Last year, an Israeli psychiatric panel determined Leifer was lying about her mental condition, setting in motion the extradition. In December, the Supreme Court rejected a final appeal against her extradition, and Israel's justice minister signed the order to send her to Australia.
Details of Leifer's connecting flight to Australia were not immediately available.
Late Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a tight closure on nearly all incoming and outgoing air traffic starting at midnight Monday through Jan. 31. The government said it would make exceptions for a small number of humanitarian cases — such as funerals and medical patients — and cargo flights. Israel's health ministry has recorded over 600,000 cases of the coronavirus and 4,419 deaths since the start of the pandemic last year.
Kaufman, Leifer's attorney, said that upon arrival in Australia, his client "will be quarantined and will appear by video conference before a judge who will formally confirm her identity and read her the charges." He said he hoped Australian authorities will respect her Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and allow her regular contact with her lawyers and family.
Avi Nissenkorn, Israel's former justice minister who had signed the extradition order, wrote on Twitter: "I promised that I would not hinder the extradition order, and that's what I have done. Malka Leifer's victims will finally earn an act of justice."
By ILAN BEN ZION Associated Press
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