JERUSALEM (AP) – An Israeli psychiatric panel has determined that a woman facing dozens of sex-abuse charges in Australia is fit to stand trial for extradition, the Justice Ministry confirmed Thursday.
The decision is a major breakthrough in a years-old case that has strained relations between Israel and Australia and upset members of Australia’s Jewish community.
Malka Leifer faces 74 counts of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by three sisters who say they were abused while she was a principal at the ultra-Orthodox religious school they attended in Melbourne. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer left the school in Australia and returned to Israel.
After Australia filed an extradition request, Leifer was put under house arrest in 2014 and underwent the beginnings of an extradition process. But that ended in 2016 when a mental health evaluation determined she wasn’t fit to stand trial.
Leifer was again arrested in early 2018 after an investigation claimed to have caught her leading a seemingly normal life and questioned her claims of suffering from mental illness. The court asked for another psychological review and she has since been held in Israeli custody.
On Thursday, Channel 13 reporter Aviad Glickman tweeted that the panel of experts had found her fit to stand trial. The Justice Ministry later confirmed the report.
In a statement issued through Kol v’Oz, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, the three sisters welcomed the ruling.
“We cannot believe this day has come!!! Incredible news!! We knew this all along! Such a long wait! Justice has come!!” they said.
The group’s chief executive, Manny Waks, said the panel’s findings are to be presented at a court hearing on Tuesday after which the judge is to decide whether the extradition hearings can proceed.
He said his organization will do “all that we can to ensure Leifer is put on a plane back to Australia as soon as possible.”
The repeated delays in the case have strained relations with Australia, one of Israel’s closest allies, coming up in discussions between the countries’ leaders and in debates in Australia’s parliament. Leaders of Australia’s pro-Israel Jewish community have also expressed frustration.
Those frustrations have been amplified by the alleged involvement in the case of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox health minister, Yaacov Litzman. Israeli police have recommended charges of fraud and breach of trust against him for suspicions that he pressure ministry employees to skew Leifer’s psychiatric evaluations in her favor. Litzman denies wrongdoing.
Leifer’s attorney, Yehuda Fried, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.