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Former headmistress of Jewish ultra-Orthodox school found guilty of rape and sexual assault

Malka Leifer in prison
Malka Leifer in prison Copyright Mahmoud Illean/AP
Copyright Mahmoud Illean/AP
By Euronews with AP
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The former headmistress of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox school in Australia, Malka Leifer, was found guilty of 18 counts of sexual assault. On Thursday, a Melbourne court sentenced her to 15 years in prison.

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It's the end of a long legal battle for two sisters determined to bring their abuser to justice.

On Thursday, Malka Leifer, a former headmistress of an ultra-orthodox Jewish school in Australia, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sexually abusing her students.

After nine days of jury deliberations, she was found guilty on 18 counts of sexual abuse, including five for rape and indecent assault.

Leifer was the principal of Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School when she abused sisters Dassi Erlich and Elly Sapper between 2004 and 2007. Erlich was 16 and Sapper 17 when the abuse began.

The two women, along with their older sister, became the public face of a years-long campaign to bring their former principal to justice and chose to identify themselves to the press.

A verdict signalling the victory for Justice

They welcomed the sentence as a victory for survivors of sexual assault.

“This has been one of the most traumatizing, destabilizing and awful, painful, paths to justice,” Erlich told reporters.

“But today really marks the end of this chapter of our lives and opens the chapter to us healing,” she added.

In sentencing, Judge Mark Gamble described Liefer’s offending against vulnerable victims as predatory and persistent.

The sisters had endured a “cruel and frightening upbringing at the hands of a very abusive mother,” received no sex education and did not recognize sexualized conduct, Gamble said.

“This case is striking for just how vulnerable each of the two victims was and for the calculating way in which the offender, Mrs Leifer, took callous advantage of those vulnerabilities in order to abuse them for her own sexual gratification,” he added.

Malka Leifer must serve at least 11 and a half years before parole eligibility.

As soon as she is released from a Victoria state prison, she will likely be deported to her native Israel.

No remorse from Malka Leifer

The Tel Aviv-born woman maintains her innocence, with Judge Gamble underlining her lack of apparent remorse or contrition. 

Leifer chose to watch her three-hour sentencing hearing by a video link from a high-security Melbourne women's prison rather than attend court in person.

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She began teaching at the school in 2001 and returned to Israel in 2008 the morning after she was stood down from her principal role because Erlich’s allegations had come to light.

On Thursday, the school's current principal and chief executive Aaron Strasser apologized to Leifer's victims for the distress they had suffered and for the impact of the abuse on their lives and families.

“Her offending was a gross and complete breach of trust and it is our hope that today’s sentencing provides a sense of justice for the survivors and helps them to heal,” Strasser said in a statement.

"The safety and wellbeing of students remain our highest priorities and we have zero tolerance for abuse of any kind,” Strasser added.

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Victorian police filed criminal charges in 2012 and the battle to extradite her from Israel began in 2014, with her lawyers arguing that she was not mentally fit to stand trial.

Gamble gave her 2,069 days off her sentence for time already served in custody in Australia since she returned in January 2021 and for time spent in Israel in custody and under home arrest.

He found Leifer had exaggerated and intensified her mental health conditions to frustrate extradition proceedings in Israel.

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