Ex-principal accused of child sex assault returns to Australia

·3-min read
Malka Leifer (C), a former teacher accused of dozens of cases of sexual abuse of girls, had been living in Israel since allegations against her surfaced in 2008

A former principal at a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school returned to Australia under extradition Wednesday to face dozens of child sexual assault charges, more than 12 years after she fled the country.

Malka Leifer, an Israeli citizen in her 50s, is accused of 74 counts of sexually assaulting children while working as a religious studies teacher and principal at the Adass Israel School in Melbourne.

After six years of legal wrangling in Israel, including over whether she was feigning mental illness to avoid standing trial, the Australian government confirmed that Leifer arrived in Melbourne on a flight late Wednesday.

She is scheduled to appear in a Melbourne court via video link on Thursday, according to court officials.

Leifer fled Australia for Israel after allegations against her surfaced in 2008, moving with her family to the Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.

She was reportedly bundled onto a plane at Ben Gurion international airport before dawn Monday -- just before flights in and out of the country were suspended to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Australia's Attorney-General Christian Porter said her return marked the end of a long and complicated legal process and "will bring relief to the alleged victims who have waited many years for this moment".

"These are extremely serious charges and now that Ms Leifer has been extradited to Australia, those charges can now be tested by the courts in Victoria," he said.

Leifer had to return a negative Covid-19 test before boarding the plane to largely virus-free Australia.

According to an official source, she is expected to complete 14 days of mandatory quarantine in custody and be tested for the virus regularly.

Australian authorities spent six years pushing for Leifer's extradition, urged on by alleged victims, including three sisters who campaigned for her return.

"They have shown enormous patience and resolve and my thoughts are with them as we reach a critical step in this legal process," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.

"I also thank all those within the Israeli government whose cooperation has allowed us to reach this point."

Leifer's extradition has also been welcomed by anti-abuse advocates and Jewish groups in Australia.

The case has received extensive coverage in the Australian press.

"The issue of the negative publicity will undoubtedly be an issue considered by Australian counsel," her lawyer Nick Kaufman told AFP ahead of her arrival.

Her Melbourne-based defence lawyer did not respond to an interview request.

A first extradition attempt between 2014 and 2016 failed after Leifer was admitted to mental health institutions and experts declared her unfit to stand trial.

Undercover private investigators later filmed Leifer shopping and depositing a cheque at a bank, apparently living a normal life.

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

Last May she was found fit to stand trial and in December the Israeli Supreme Court rejected her lawyers' final appeal against extradition.