As a friend to Israel, I can only advise that this case is causing harm to Australia-Israel relations. It is doing damage to Israel’s reputation as a country governed by the rule of law. It is very important that Israel knows, at all levels, that this is an important case for Australia. It is one that is, increasingly, having an impact on bilateral relations and on how Israel is viewed and perceived in Australia. It is one that we will not let rest until we see Ms Leifer extradited to face justice in Australia.
Full motion and speech
Mr SHARMA (Wentworth) (18:46): I move:
(1) notes that Malka Leifer, the former Principal of the Adass Israel Girls School in Melbourne, fled Australia in 2008 as child sexual abuse allegations against her surfaced;
(2) reaffirms the formal extradition request that was filed by Australia in 2014 requesting she be returned to Victoria to face 74 charges of child sexual abuse;
(3) acknowledges the bravery of Ms Leifer’s alleged victims – especially Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper for their tireless pursuit of justice;
(4) further notes that over five years have elapsed, and over 60 court hearings have been held in Israel, since this extradition request was first lodged, without any significant progress having been made;
(5) expresses regret and concern at the numerous attempts to prevent and delay Malka Leifer facing justice in Australia; and
(6) calls for the immediate extradition of Malka Leifer to Australia to face 74 charges of child sexual abuse.
I wish to address the House today about an important issue of justice. Ms Malka Leifer, who was principal of the Adass Israel School in Elsternwick, Melbourne, bolted from Australia in 2008, two days after she was sacked by the school board amid allegations surrounding inappropriate relationships with some of the pupils at the school.
In 2013, 74 charges of sexual assault were filed against Ms Leifer in connection with her time at Adass school. In 2014, Australia made a formal request for the extradition of Ms Leifer in order to face these 74 charges. In the same year, in August 2014, this extradition request was filed in the Jerusalem district court. I recall this well. I was living in Israel at the time, representing Australia as our ambassador. I distinctly recall receiving and formally conveying our extradition request. I expected it would be a straightforward case, that the wheels of justice would turn and that, within the space of 12 to 18 months, we would see Ms Leifer extradited to Australia in order to face justice for these most grave and serious charges levelled against her.
But I regret to report that in the five years that have elapsed since the extradition request was first made the wheels of justice have stalled. There have now been upwards of 60 court hearings in this case and yet only now are we just beginning, painfully slowly, to see the wheels of justice break free from their shackles and ever so perceptibly begin gradually to turn. The actual petition for extradition has in fact never been argued before the courts in Israel because, prior to each hearing, Ms Leifer would claim to be experiencing a psychiatric episode and fail to appear before the court. This behaviour is not only an affront to justice; it is deeply traumatic for the victims of this abuse, it is damaging to Israel’s reputation and it is increasingly becoming a point of contention and friction in our otherwise positive and productive relationship with Israel.
Since I last spoke about this issue in the House, however, there has been a noteworthy development. On 13 January this year, 2020, the Office of the State Attorney in Israel requested that the extradition request be expedited. The Office of the State Attorney did so on the basis that a psychiatric panel appointed to assess Ms Leifer reported to the court on 9 January. In its report, the psychiatric panel stated their findings that they:
… unanimously and unequivocally determined that Leifer was mentally fit to stand trial and that she had been faking her mental incompetency all along.
Let me repeat that: they found unanimously and unequivocally that Ms Leifer was mentally fit to stand trial and that she had been faking her mental incompetency all along. The Office of the State Attorney in Israel added in their commentary:
The psychiatric panel’s findings lead to the inevitable conclusion that over the past five years, the court and the mental health system have fallen victim to a fraud perpetrated by Leifer and her supporters.
I could not agree more wholeheartedly.
As a result of the state attorney’s request, the 63rd court hearing in this case was held in the Jerusalem District Court on 24 January 2020. Media reports describe this hearing as ‘an excruciating 90 minutes of groundhog day,’ with Ms Leifer’s lawyers once again attempting to frustrate and further delay the process, which has already been far too prolonged. They have been granted an opportunity to cross-examine the members of the psychiatric panel which assessed Ms Leifer. I hope that this cross-examination happens quickly and we can move forward.
Ms Leifer has continually used claims about her mental state to frustrate and delay attempts to extradite her. The willingness of the Israeli legal system to entertain these claims seems to make no consideration or allowance for the fragile mental state of Ms Leifer’s alleged victims and their legitimate desire to see justice served in this case. At a hearing in October last year Israeli Supreme Court Justice Anat Baron said:
The doubt itself regarding the credibility of the defendant in everything relating to her mental status creates the concern that this is an attempt by her to escape justice and to disrupt the legal proceedings.
I endorse those comments.
Members of the House would be aware that, in a further twist in this case, the Israeli police have recommended the indictment of the Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, in Israel for allegedly pressuring the officials in his office to prevent the extradition. This is an exceptionally serious allegation. If true, this would be a gross interference in the course of justice. I hope and, indeed, I expect that it will be fulsomely and fearlessly investigated.
In December last year, the member for Macnamara, Josh Burns, and I met with Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer, two victims of Malka Leifer’s abuse who came to personally lobby for fast-tracked extradition. The passion and determination that Dassi and Nicole and others have shown in continuing to fight for justice in this case is inspiring. Nicole said of her motivations:
We’re trying to send a message to all survivors that even if you have been abused life can go on, justice can be served, and we want to stand strong on behalf of all others, not just ourselves.
After five years of waiting, the persistence of Nicole, Dassi and other victims looks close to being rewarded. But the fact that an extradition like this has been held up for five years based on a claim that the alleged perpetrator has been in the midst of a psychiatric episode that was later found to be fake is, quite simply, unacceptable. I do not doubt the independence and the integrity of the Israeli legal system; nor do I doubt the commitment of the Israeli justice ministry in pursuing this case, but, quite simply: enough is enough. This case has gone on for far too long.
I endorse the recent comments of the Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, when he said:
… the case has gone on for far too long and nothing short of full justice can be acceptable.
Indeed, nothing short of full justice can be acceptable. As a friend to Israel, I can only advise that this case is causing harm to Australia-Israel relations. It is doing damage to Israel’s reputation as a country governed by the rule of law. It is very important that Israel knows, at all levels, that this is an important case for Australia. It is one that is, increasingly, having an impact on bilateral relations and on how Israel is viewed and perceived in Australia. It is one that we will not let rest until we see Ms Leifer extradited to face justice in Australia.
I and others, including those here today, will keep faith with the victims of this awful abuse, and we will be relentless in ensuring that justice is done in this case. Those who suffered from Ms Leifer’s abuse should be praised for their persistence in the pursuit of justice. Those of us in Australia with the capability to do so owe it to them to stand up and fight alongside them.
I’m confident that others in this House will continue to work alongside us and that the Australian government will continue to pursue the extradition of Malka Leifer. With the breakthrough finally made in January of this year, I am hopeful and, indeed, insistent that this case will reach a satisfying conclusion and that justice will be served. We will not rest until that is the case. Let me also acknowledge the work of the member for Macnamara, here in this place today, who has done a tremendous job in highlighting this issue and bringing it to public attention.
THE DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Wallace ): Is there a seconder to the motion?