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Israel Police recommends indicting ultra-Orthodox leader for aiding accused paedophile

Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman [Reuven Frizi/Wikimedia]
Yaakov Litzman, head of ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism (UTJ) [Reuven Frizi/Wikimedia]

Israel Police has recommended indicting Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s Deputy Health Minister and head of ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism (UTJ), for helping an alleged paedophile avoid extradition.

The UTJ chair is suspected of having used his influence in Israel’s Health Ministry to influence the professional opinions of his subordinates regarding Malka Leifer, a former school principle wanted in Australia on 74 counts of child sexual assault and rape.

Leifer was formerly a principal at the Adass Israel School, an ultra-Orthodox girl’s school in Melbourne, Australia. In 2008, allegations that Leifer had sexually abused several former pupils were raised. On the same evening the allegations were raised, members of the school board arranged a flight for Leifer and several of her children to Israel, before local police had been informed of the case.

Australia’s police subsequently investigated the allegations, issuing a warrant for her arrest and an extradition request to Israel. Leifer was arrested in Israel in 2014.

However, the Jerusalem district psychiatrist ruled that Leifer was mentally unfit to attend an extradition hearing and, since she is a dual Australian-Israeli national, extradition proceedings were halted. Leifer was re-arrested in 2018 after an undercover investigation filmed her living a “normal, healthy life” in Emmanuel – an illegal Haredi settlement in the occupied West Bank – and deemed her mentally fit to stand trial. She remains in Israel’s only women’s prison, Neveh Tirtza.

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Now Israel Police has recommended that Litzman be charged with fraud and breach of trust for having pressured the Jerusalem district psychiatrist, Dr. Yaakov Jacob Charnes, into saying that Leifer was mentally unfit to stand trial.

According to the Times of Israel, Charnes has “changed his mind three times regarding whether Leifer was fit for extradition, ultimately signing off on a legal opinion in which state psychiatrists found her fit for extradition.” A legal official also told the Israeli daily that police suspected Charnes changed his medical conclusion after being contacted by officials in Litzman’s office.

Litzman also faces charges of bribery in a separate case in which he allegedly used his influence in the Health Ministry to prevent a business owned by a personal associate from being closed for health and sanitation violations.

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Litzman’s office issued a statement responding to the police announcement, saying that “as we have stated all along, Deputy Minister Litzman has worked during all of his years in his position on behalf of Israel’s citizens with transparency and in accordance with the law”.

“We are certain without a doubt that after a meticulous investigation, it will be found that the deputy minister’s actions were entirely without fault,” the statement added.

In the wake of the police recommendation, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will now decide whether or not to indict Litzman. For her part, a final decision regarding Leifer’s mental fitness for an extradition hearing is expected to be handed down by the Jerusalem District Court on 23 September.

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Sources close to Litzman have slated the timing of the police recommendation, appearing to allege they formed part of an attempt to attack Litzman in the run up to Israel’s do-over election on 17 September. “The issues for which Litzman is being investigated are from the distant past,” Haaretz quoted the source as saying: “It’s clear that the wonderful timing isn’t coincidental and that we are seeing an attempt to attack Litzman.”

Until he is formally charged, however, Litzman will be able to continue contesting the September election and serving in his position as deputy health minister. He becomes Israel’s third high-profile Knesset Member (MK) currently standing for election while facing charges of corruption, including Aryeh Deri – the Interior Minister and head of Israel’s other ultra-Orthodox party, Shas – and Israeli Prime Minister and head of the ruling Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both UTJ and Shas have expressed their willingness to support Netanyahu’s bid to serve a sixth term as prime minister, even as he faces trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The two parties have also refrained from ruling out support for legal amendments, pursued by Netanyahu, which would grant sitting MKs immunity from indictment as long as they remain in office. These modifications could also benefit Litzman and Deri in their own legal struggles.

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