JERUSALEM: Israel on Monday extradited Malka Leifer, a former Jewish ultra-Orthodox school principal accused of dozens of sexual abuse cases of pupils in Australia, ending a six-year legal wrangle, the justice ministry said.

“We confirm the deportation,“ it said in a WhatsApp message, giving no further details.

Israeli media said she left on an early-morning flight to Australia, hours before Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was to close down as part of Covid-19 precautions.

Ynet news site carried a picture of her being escorted aboard an aircraft before daybreak with her ankles shackled.

Her hands were not visible in the photo.

The Jerusalem Post said she was “travelling to Australia via Frankfurt, and will arrive in Australia later today”.

Leifer, an Israeli, is accused of child sex abuse while she worked as a teacher and principal at an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne.

According to Australian media, she faces 74 counts of child sex abuse against girls.

The case has had wide press coverage in Australia, something her lawyer, Nick Kaufman, says could be a hurdle.

“The issue of the negative publicity will undoubtedly be an issue considered by Australian (defence) counsel,“ he told AFP, saying that it is a factor they may come up in court.

“I’m sure that the judges are extremely good and that they will be convinced by the arguments made by the defence on her behalf and they will give her a fair trial in that respect,“ he added.

“Whether or not she can get a fair trial is another matter entirely.”

‘Justice one step closer’

After allegations against her surfaced in Australia in 2008, Leifer and her family fled to Israel and moved to the Emmanuel settlement in the occupied West Bank.

In December, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected her lawyers’ final appeal against extradition in a strongly-worded judgement.

“More than six years have passed since a request was filed in the Jerusalem district court to declare the appellant extradited to Australia,“ it wrote.

Since then, it said, “there is no proceeding that the appellant has not taken” to prevent her extradition, including on grounds of mental illness.

Former Australian ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma, now a federal MP, welcomed news that she was on her way to stand trial.

“Justice one step closer,“ he wrote on Twitter.

Israeli daily Haaretz quoted the Zionist Federation of Australia’s chief, Jeremy Leibler, as criticising the delay.

“That Leifer was allowed to escape justice for so long was a travesty,“ he said.

“While it’s a relief that Israel’s justice system has finally prevailed, the time and process that resulted in these delays are completely unacceptable.”

A previous extradition attempt between 2014 and 2016 failed after Leifer was admitted to mental institutions and expert opinions found she was not fit to stand trial.

But undercover private investigators later filmed Leifer shopping and depositing a cheque at a bank, apparently living a normal life.

This prompted Israeli authorities to launch a probe into whether she was faking mental illness to avoid extradition, leading to her re-arrest in February 2018.

Last May, Jerusalem district court justice Chana Lomp ruled that while Leifer had “mental problems”, they were “not psychotic problems of mental illness as in its legal definition” and she was fit to stand trial.

The legal wrangling caused some tensions between allies Israel and Australia, with Leifer’s extradition being a central issue raised with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a visit to Australia last February. — AFP