Today, a British teenager was given a four-month suspended sentence after being found guilty of lying about gang-rape in Cyprus. In July last year, she reported to police that she was gang raped in a hotel room. She later recanted the claim and was charged with Public Mischief by falsely accusing the group of raping her. She was granted bail in August after a month in prison, but remained unable to leave Cyprus. She was found guilty in December, 2019.
Whilst the suspended sentence means the teenager is free to return home to the UK, she should never have been subjected to prosecution in the first place.
Many serious questions remain to be answered about what happened on the night in question, how the police handled the investigation, how the young woman was treated, and why she was prosecuted without apparent examination of the allegations she immediately reported to the police.
There are various complex reasons why a victim of sexual violence may retract their allegation. They might be traumatised and vulnerable, and have a lack of confidence in or fear of the justice process, especially if they have been subjected to prejudicial attitudes and negative gender stereotypes by the investigating authorities.
In some instances, victims are subjected to pressure to withdraw an allegation by family members, the perpetrator or persons linked to them, or even by law enforcement, as is alleged to have occurred in this instance.
When a rape victim retracts an allegation, police authorities should assess all the reasons why. The teenager’s court testimony about being gang raped and her subsequent treatment by state authorities, alongside the supporting evidence provided by expert witnesses for the defence, clearly expose the need for a comprehensive investigation into the night in question and the way the case has been handled by the police, medical authorities and state prosecutors.
Failing to meet international standards on victims’ rights
The manner in which the legal system in Cyprus has handled this case falls well below international standards and the resulting publicity has shone a much needed spotlight on what appear to be systemic flaws in how the police and the criminal justice system deal with crimes involving gender based violence.
As someone who reported rape, she should have been provided with all rights according to Cypriot law, as established under EU and international human standards, including the Istanbul Convention which Cyprus ratified in November 2017. This includes giving victims who do not understand or speak the local language an interpreter free of charge during all interviews or questioning by the police, which does not appear to have happened in this case.
In addition, she was not given legal representation during the eight hours of questioning in custody overnight which culminated in her signing a retraction statement that her lawyers have argued she was coerced into doing by Cypriot police, and which an expert witness has testified would not have been written by a native English speaker.
Undermining trust in law enforcement to investigate rape
By not following the correct procedures and protocols, the police in this case have severely undermined the public’s trust in the state’s ability to appropriately investigate cases of rape and gender-based violence.
Furthermore, charging the teenager at the centre of this complex case with the offence of Public Mischief for falsely reporting rape sends an ominous message to other survivors of sexual violence in Cyprus that they could face the same fate. With convictions incredibly low and many women choosing not to come forward for fear of being blamed, this sends a signal to perpetrators that they can continue assaulting with virtual impunity which, in effect, decriminalises rape..
It is the duty of the investigators and the prosecution to thoroughly examine the circumstances of each case in an impartial manner and not base their decisions on negative gender-based stereotypes, or, as appears in this instance, pejorative attitudes about young people who visit Ayia Napa. To have concluded an investigation into an alleged rape by 12 men within just a few days, allow all those men to return home to Israel while continuing to interrogate the young woman in custody seems unusual at best and leaves serious questions as to the thoroughness of the investigation.
A failure of Cyprus’ legal system
The charge and subsequent guilty verdict against the young woman for Public Mischief represent a serious failure of Cyprus’ legal system to pursue justice and to be seen to be just, particularly while there are thorough investigations still to be made with respect to the alleged rape, procedures followed by authorities, and the young woman’s treatment in custody.
Equality Now calls for a thorough assessment and evaluation of the way the authorities have conducted their investigation throughout this case, and their treatment of the young British woman. The system needs an urgent root and branch review, and the introduction of improved policies and procedures to ensure that reports of sexual violence are treated with the gravity they deserve and survivors are dealt with in a sensitive manner. It also calls for the conviction against the young woman for Public Mischief to be expunged.
The case from Cyprus is not an isolated one. A lack of sensitivity in handling sexual violence by law enforcement, justice systems and the media across the world together with victim-blaming, institutional biases and discriminatory processes, leave victims without access to justice and give perpetrators impunity. This has to end.