(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL NEWSPAPER)
Police recommended on Tuesday that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman be indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust for using his office to illicitly provide assistance to an alleged serial sex abuser, as well as on a separate bribery charge for helping to prevent the closure of a food business that his own ministry had deemed unsanitary.
The first case involves Malka Leifer, a former ultra-Orthodox girls’ school principal charged in Australia with 74 counts of child sex abuse. The police announced in February that they were investigating Litzman on suspicion that he had pressured employees in his office to alter the conclusions of psychiatric evaluations that had deemed Leifer fit for extradition.
In their statement, police said that the investigation, conducted by the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit and the National Fraud Investigation Unit, had found enough evidence to put Litzman on trial over his involvement in the Leifer case, as well as for intervening to help several other sex offenders obtain improved conditions, including prison furloughs and other benefits, by pressuring state psychiatrists and prisons service officials.
In the second case, police said that Litzman attempted to influence officials in the Health Ministry in order to prevent the closure of a food business whose owner “he is close to” — a closure that had been ordered due to “serious sanitary findings found that led to the sickness of a number of people who ate from its products.”
Kan reported that breakthroughs in the police’s case came from the testimonies of various state psychiatrists. One of them told investigators, “I’m just a bureaucrat. A senior minister is sitting in front of me [making requests]. I know my place and I know his place and what is expected of me.”
Several psychiatrists told police that they feared they’d be fired if they didn’t follow Litzman’s orders.
Litzman, who possesses many authorities of a full minister despite serving as a deputy, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining in a response to the police recommendation that his office has a “clear open-door policy for assisting members of the public. This is without discrimination between populations and without clarifying the status of those who call for assistance. The deputy minister expressed confidence that no charges would ultimately be filed.”
In the wake of the police recommendation, it will be up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to determine whether or not to indict.
Dassi Erlich, a Leifer accuser who launched a campaign to extradite her former principal back to Australia, said in a statement Tuesday, “We are feeling so grateful that the questions we continually raised through the #BringLeiferBack campaign resulted in one more step to achieving justice.”
In May, Channel 13 news reported that Litzman helped at least 10 serious sex offenders obtain improved conditions, including home visits and other benefits, by pressuring state psychiatrists and prisons service officials.
Earlier in the year, the TV channel had reported that police were investigating suspicions that Litzman and his chief of staff pressured a psychiatrist, Moshe Birger, to ensure that another imprisoned sex offender close to Litzman’s Gur sect of Hasidim was placed in a rehabilitation program. Participation in the program can lead to furloughs and early release from prison.
Police said Tuesday that they had not found sufficient evidence to prosecute Litzman on his suspected assistance to other alleged pedophiles.
Leifer, a former school principal who is wanted for alleged sex crimes in Australia, is known to have links to the Gur community, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the branch.
A Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel in February that police had recordings of Litzman and officials in his office speaking to Health Ministry employees and pressing them to act on Leifer’s behalf.
In 2000, Leifer was recruited from Israel to work at the Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls school in Melbourne. When allegations of sexual abuse against her began to surface eight years later, members of the school board purchased the mother of eight a red-eye plane ticket back to Israel, allowing her to avoid being charged.
After authorities in Melbourne filed charges against her, Australia officially filed an extradition request in 2012. Leifer was arrested in Israel two years later, but released to house arrest shortly thereafter. Judges deemed her mentally unfit to stand trial and eventually removed all restrictions against her, concluding that she was too ill to even leave her bed.
She was rearrested in February 2018 following a police undercover operation that cast doubts on her claims regarding her mental state, and has remained in custody since. The operation was launched after the Jewish Community Watch NGO hired private investigators who placed hidden cameras in the Emmanuel settlement, a Haredi community in the northern West Bank, where Leifer had been living, which showed the alleged sex abuser roaming around the town without any apparent difficulty.
Despite the seemingly damning footage, the trial has dragged on for an additional year, as the court continues to debate her mental fitness. The Jerusalem district psychiatrist responsible for evaluating Leifer, Dr. Jacob Charnes, has changed his mind three times regarding whether Leifer was fit for extradition, ultimately signing off an a legal opinion in which state psychiatrists found her fit for extradition.
However, when the psychiatrist was cross-examined by the defense on the evaluation late last year, he told the court that he recommended an additional evaluation of Leifer be carried out — a proposal that both sides have rejected.
A legal official told The Times of Israel that police suspected Charnes changed his medical conclusion after being contacted by officials in Litzman’s office. Though Charnes has been interrogated under caution in the case against the deputy health minister, police on Tuesday said they did not recommend he be tried.
The Jerusalem District Court will hand down a final decision regarding Leifer’s mental fitness for an extradition hearing on September 23. The Times of Israel learned last month that a separate court appointed medical board is slated to officially concluce that Leifer has been feigning mental illness, in a ruling that would likely impact the Jerusalem District Court’s decision.
Jewish Community Watch founder of director Meyer Seewald said in a Tuesday statement, “Our private investigation in 2017 only clarified what was obvious to so many: that Malka Leifer was feigning mental illness to avoid extradition. Considering she was doing very little to hide her ruse, it was apparent that Leifer was being protected by very influential people. The police recommendation clarifies that it was allegedly Litzman and his office that were diligently working to make sure Malka Leifer’s victims never received justice.”
Seewald called on senior lawmakers to ensure that Litzman is not made a member of the next cabinet after the elections on September 17.