News Crime Captured on video, the moment Malka Leifer refused to look justice in the eye
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Captured on video, the moment Malka Leifer refused to look justice in the eye

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Not that she seemed to appreciate it, as she was led to a chair behind a large grey desk in a police interview room, but things could have been worse for former school principal turned alleged pedophile Malka Leifer.

She appeared via video link for her first court appearance in Melbourne on Thursday.

The mother of eight didn’t have to sit in a crowded courtroom or push through a jostling media bait ball, the likes of which faced Cardinal George Pell, when he infamously flew in from Rome for his first hearing in front of a magistrate.

Malka Leifer, in February 2018, at an extradition hearing in Israel. Photo: Getty

Instead, like most legal hearings with incarcerated defendants in the pandemic era, Ms Leifer had a neatly scheduled video call for her first appearance, a filing hearing, at 10am.

Ms Leifer, 54, finally landed on Australian soil from Israel on Wednesday night, after an extensive extradition battle for her return.

She was hooked up from North Melbourne Police Station, where she is being temporarily held for the dual purpose of custody and quarantine.

There was a 12-minute technical delay before the defendant finally came into the frame, but for three of the 30 people watching online, the additional wait may have felt like an eternity.

Ms Leifer’s alleged victims, sisters Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer, were all waiting silently on the video call.

malka-leifer
Elly Sapper, Dassi Erlich and Nicole Meyer at the District court of Jerusalem in March 2019.

They were there to watch their former school principal face justice in the city where she allegedly abused them as children, when she was working at the Adass Israel School in Elsternwick.

She faces 74 charges and is accused of sexually abusing them between 2001 and 2008.

They had applied for a special court order so they could be named in the case.

Ms Leifer has always claimed she is innocent.

The significance of the sisters’ presence was not lost across the disjointed cyberspace court hearing. They have awaited her return after she fled to Israel with five of her eight children in 2008, when the allegations first came to light.

The legal moves for Ms Leifer to return to Australia to face these allegations spanned six years and involved more 70 court hearings in Israel.

Malka Leifer is accused of molesting her students at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Melbourne.

Then there was the tireless campaigning from the sisters, and the complicated geopolitical manoeuvres that had to happen to get Ms Leifer on a plane, in the company of Victoria Police officers.

So for them, the moment Ms Leifer was finally seen on screen, wearing the same clothes she left Israel in – a thick woollen black and white patterned cardigan over a long brown dress – marked both an ending and a new beginning.

When Magistrate Johanna Metcalf asked if she could see and hear the court, Ms Leifer refused to answer. Twice.

She refused to lift her gaze and look justice in the eye, even if it was down the lens of a camera.

Perhaps it was the fact it would have been 1am back in Israel by now and jet lag had set in, but Ms Leifer leaned forward, put her scarf-adorned head in her crossed arms and didn’t move for about 25 minutes.

It was hard to tell if she was awake.

Her barrister Tony Hargreaves, who didn’t apply for his client to be bailed, told the court Ms Leifer had “significant mental health issues” and he sought assurance her daily regime of medication would be adhered to in custody while also asking for her “very strict” ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious practices to be observed.

Ms Leifer touches down in Melbourne to a heavy police escort. Photo: AAP

Mr Hargreaves also appealed to the magistrate to move Ms Leifer to a prison, where there would be better facilities than in the police station.

The New Daily understands she will soon be moved to the segregation unit of Melbourne’s main women’s prison, Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Deer Park, where she will be isolated on remand long term, to continue her quarantine and for her safety.

“She is unlikely to mix with other prisoners, only staff,” a source said.

The charges against Ms Leifer date back to March 2012, prosecutor Phil Raimondo said.

After the hearing, copies of the charge sheets were released to the media and showed in detail how Ms Leifer is accused of multiple counts of sexual penetration, rape and indecent assault.

There were multiple locations of the alleged incidents, including the Melbourne south-eastern suburbs of Elsternwick, Elwood and Frankston and also beyond, into farmland and forested regions, including Emerald, Blampied and Rawson.

The next hearing will be a committal mention on April 9, but due to a COVID-induced backlog, the trial isn’t expected until next year.

The waiting will no doubt be arduous for those involved, but Ms Leifer is back in Melbourne and the wheels of justice are slowly turning.

For many, that’s what matters most.

Lucie Morris-Marr is a freelance investigative journalist and author. She covered the Cardinal George Pell legal matter for The New Daily and recently won the 2020 Walkley Book Award for her book on the case