A former Israeli headmistress has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two teenage students at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Australia, 15 years after fleeing to Israel to avoid arrest.
The jury found Malka Leifer guilty on all 18 charges, including raping a student during a sleepover and sexually assaulting another adolescent during a school camp. She was cleared of nine more charges.
When she was first accused of sexual assault in 2008, Leifer was the principal of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne.
Leifer, a dual Israeli-Australian citizen, fled to Israel before being apprehended, resulting in a protracted court battle spanning more than 70 extradition hearings.
The fugitive mother-of-eight was finally flown back to Australia in 2021 and is scheduled to stand trial in February of this year.
During the trial, prosecutors claimed that Leifer sexually assaulted three sisters who attended the Adass Israel School, which is part of a reclusive Jewish sect on the city’s outskirts.
The jury convicted Leifer of sexually assaulting two of the sisters after a seven-week trial and seven days of deliberation.
Leifer, who has maintained her innocence throughout, sat with her hands folded and stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read.
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 left Australia in 2008 after one of the students revealed the sexual assaults to her therapist. She eventually settled in the occupied West Bank’s ultra-orthodox Emmanuel settlement.
In 2012, Australian police charged Leifer and requested her extradition from Israel two years later, kicking off a lengthy legal saga.
Leifer claimed that she was catatonic due to crippling depression and that she was mentally incapable of standing trial.
The extradition procedure was halted until a private investigator secretly filmed Leifer going about her daily chores, seemingly unaffected by the mental illnesses she 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.