A former headmistress was found guilty on 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 guilty on 18 charges, the jury said, including raping a student during a sleep-over and sexually assaulting another teenage pupil during a school camp.
She was cleared of a further nine charges.
Leifer was the principal of the 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 spanning 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 city’s outskirts.
After a seven-week trial, and seven days of deliberations, the jury convicted Leifer of sexually assaulting two of the sisters.
Leifer, who has maintained her innocence throughout, sat with her hands folded and stared 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 start to take that power back that she stole from us as children,” she told reporters outside the court.
Another sister, Elly Sapper, said justice had been served.
“She abused the three of us for so many years and while today’s verdict may not properly reflect that, today Malka Leifer was finally found accountable,” Elly Sapper said.
The court heard how Leifer had abused her high standing within the Adass community to prey on the sisters.
According to an indictment, Leifer raped one student in 2006 after inviting her home to “sleep over for kallah lessons” — a kind of pre-wedding etiquette class that includes sexual education.
On other occasions 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 for your wedding night,” Leifer said after one sexual assault, according to Lewis.
“This is what is good for you,” she allegedly said during another incident.
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.
– Secretly filmed –
Australian police filed charges against Leifer in 2012 and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, sparking a lengthy legal saga.
Leifer claimed that crippling depression had left her catatonic and that she was mentally incapable of standing trial.
The extradition process was suspended — until a private investigator secretly filmed Leifer going about her daily chores, apparently unafflicted by the mental illnesses she had claimed.
She was eventually extradited to Melbourne in 2021.
Defence lawyer Ian Hill previously said Leifer denied “all of the criminal conduct alleged by each of the complainants” and that her interactions with the students were “professional and proper.”
“We deny that they are telling the truth,” he said.