JERUSALEM — A former principal of a Jewish girls’ school in Australia accused of sexually assaulting her pupils can be extradited to face trial there, a court in Israel ruled on Monday, bringing a yearslong legal saga that has strained relations between the two countries to a potential close.
Australia has been seeking the extradition of the former principal, Malka Leifer, for nearly six years on 74 charges of sexual assault on former students in the school. At the heart of the case are allegations of three sisters who say they were abused while attending the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel School in Melbourne in the early 2000s.
“This is a victory for justice!” Dassi Erlich, one of the sisters, said in a post on Facebook. “A victory not just for us, but for all survivors. Exhaling years of holding our breath!”
Ms. Leifer’s lawyers in Israel had argued that she was mentally unfit to stand trial, but after years of private and police investigations and examinations by several psychiatric panels, the Israeli courts eventually ruled that she had faked mental illness.
Ms. Leifer now has 30 days in which to appeal the decision to Israel’s Supreme Court. The Israeli justice minister must approve any extradition request.
In an interview by phone, Ms. Erlich, who was with her two sisters, Elly Sapper and Nicole Meyer, said they were all elated and relieved at the decision.
“To have so many twists and turns, and cover-ups, it’s made this moment huge for us,” she said. “We’re all just taking it in.”
Ms. Leifer, an Israeli citizen, moved to Australia in 2001, according to court documents. The accusations relate to a period between 2004 and 2008, while she was principal of the school, according to the Israeli judicial authorities.
She fled to Israel in 2008 when the accusations against her first emerged. Australia formally requested her extradition in 2014.
After dozens of hearings, the Jerusalem District Court determined in May that Ms. Leifer was fit to face extradition proceedings following earlier rulings that she had been feigning mental incompetence for years.
“Today is an important and significant day for the rule of law, for international cooperation and most importantly for those who were victims of Malka Leifer’s crimes,” Israel’s Justice Ministry said in a statement released after Monday’s ruling.
The statement added that Ms. Leifer had “made every effort to delay the proceedings and avoid extradition, including repeated attempts to convince the court that she was not competent to undergo extradition proceedings” but that the court had finally put an end to those efforts.
Ms. Leifer’s lawyers, Tal Gabai and Yehuda Fried, issued their own statement, vowing to contest the decision in the Supreme Court.
“Today’s decision of the District Court is not the final word,” the statement read, adding that there were serious reservations about Ms. Leifer’s ability to stand trial. It also noted that prison service experts were still assessing her mental state and that she was receiving “significant antipsychotic treatment” in the prison where she is being held.
Manny Waks, the head of Kol V’Oz, an Israeli organization that works on behalf of Jewish survivors of child sex abuse, noted that Israel’s Supreme Court had so far ruled in favor of the prosecution throughout the Leifer case and said it was “simply a matter of time” before she was sent to Australia.
“I’m still hopeful that this will happen by the end of 2020,” he said in a statement. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure justice prevails.”
Ms. Meyer, another of the sisters who have accused Ms. Leifer of assault, said she hoped other sexual abuse survivors would find strength in their persistence.
“We didn’t give up for justice,” she said. “It was so hard along the way.”
Damien Cave contributed reporting from Sydney, Australia.