A former principal was found guilty Monday of sexually assaulting two sisters at an ultra-orthodox Jewish school in Australia, 15 years after she escaped arrest by fleeing to Israel.
Malka Leifer was found guilty of 18 charges, the jury said, including raping a student during a sleepover and sexually assaulting another teenager during a school camp.
She was cleared of nine other charges.
Leifer was the principal of Adass Israel School in Melbourne when she was first accused of sexual assault in 2008.
A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, Leifer fled to Israel before she could be arrested, sparking a drawn-out court battle that lasted more than 70 extradition hearings.
The fugitive mother of eight was finally flown back to Australia in 2021 and was put on trial in February this year.
Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Leifer sexually assaulted three sisters who were studying at the Adass Israel School, which is part of a reclusive Jewish sect on the outskirts of the city.
After a seven-week trial, and seven days of deliberation, the jury convicted Leifer of sexually assaulting two sisters.
Leifer, who maintained her innocence throughout, sat with her hands folded and looked straight ahead as the verdicts were read.
– Abuse of power –
Leifer’s abuse “held us hostage for many years”, said one of the sisters, Dassi Erlich.
“Today we can begin to take back that power that she stole from us as children,” she told reporters outside court.
Another sister, Elly Sapper, said justice had been served.
“She abused the three of us for years and while today’s verdict may not reflect that accurately, today Malka Leifer was finally held accountable,” said Elly Sapper.
The court heard how Leifer abused her high position within the Adass community to prey on the sisters.
According to an indictment, Leifer raped one student in 2006 after being invited to her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a type of premarital etiquette class that includes sex education.
At other times Leifer told the students she was preparing them to be wives, prosecutor Justin Lewis told the court in his opening statement.
“This will help you on your wedding night,” Leifer said after one sexual assault, according to Lewis.
“This is what is good for you,” she said during another episode.
Leifer fled Australia in 2008 after one of the students confided in her therapist about the sexual assaults.
She eventually settled in the ultra-orthodox Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.
– Secret film –
Australian police filed charges against Leifer in 2012 and sought her extradition from Israel two years later, sparking a lengthy legal saga.
Leifer claimed that the devastating depression left her catatonic and mentally unable to stand trial.
The extradition process was put on hold — until a private investigator secretly filmed Leifer going about her daily business, which was not affected by her claimed mental illness.
She was eventually extradited to Melbourne in 2021.
Defense lawyer Ian Hill previously said Leifer denied “all criminal conduct alleged by all complainants” and that her interactions with the students were “professional and proper”.
“We deny that they are telling the truth,” he said.