Report: Jail Rapists not Rape Victims, meeting in House of Commons

Women and families affected by biased rape investigations were joined by supporters in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2nd December to discuss the campaign, led by Women Against Rape (WAR) andBlack Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), against the prosecution and imprisonment of rape survivors.

Hosted by John McDonnell MP, the event – Jail Rapists not Rape Victims – focused on the perverse and harrowing injustices women who report sexual violence are subjected to by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

An estimated 85,000 women are raped[1] in England and Wales each year; 90% of reported rape and domestic violence goes unprosecuted. Despite such an appalling record on achieving justice for victims, the legal system has managed to prosecute 109 women for false rape allegations in the past five years. The vast majority of these women are charged with ‘perverting the course of justice’, an offence that carries a maximum life sentence.

As immigration and detention practices grow increasingly severe, and shelters, legal aid, social housing, childcare and income support are restricted and shut down, women are left with few routes to escape sexual and domestic violence. To compound this with the threat of imprisonment and/or the removal of children if women are accused of lying or of being unable to protect their children, effectively leaves women trapped, and allows rapists and other abusers to continue with impunity.

BWRAP and WAR have been challenging this practice for the past seven years, and the evening threw light on the injustices they have uncovered through their campaign. They also mentioned women unable to be with us that evening due to incarceration or, as in the case of Eleanor de Freitas, suicide.

Attendees heard some of the survivors’ stories firsthand. Sandra Allen talked us through the ordeal her daughter, Layla Ibrahim, has faced since she was attacked in 2009. Layla served three years in prison after she reported having been violently attacked by two strangers while on her way home after a night out. Sandra traced how the police’s initial appearance of concern twisted into an investigation of Layla, rather than of her attackers: family members were contacted and told that the police suspected that Layla had inflicted her own injuries, suspects that fitted Layla’s description of the men were not pursued, forensic evidence that supported her story was lost or destroyed. Layla was pressured to drop the charges and told that if she did so she would ‘be dragged through the papers, but not through the courts’. She refused to “confess” to something she hadn’t done. After she served her sentence, one of her suspected attackers was found guilty of raping another woman using similar techniques he had used on Layla.

An appeal against Layla’s conviction is going to the Criminal Cases Review Commission this month. Sandra Allen called for the public to support her daughter’s application so the investigation into the original rape can be reopened and Layla’s name cleared.

Hamish McKenna, whose partner Rhiannon Brooker is serving a three and a half year sentence after reporting rape and domestic violence in a previous relationship, told a similar story. Rhiannon’s decision to speak out was met with persistent mistrust, perverse logic and threats from the police. Her family and friends were investigated; Hamish himself was threatened with being charged for perverting the course of justice should he give evidence in support of Rhiannon. The police even contacted social services in a bid to remove Rhiannon and Hamish’s child, who was still breastfeeding at the time – fortunately social workers saw what a loving family they are.

For Gail Sherwood, a mother of three, reporting her longtime stalker and rapist was met with laughter and suspicion. Gail was placed under surveillance, accused of planning elaborate false attacks on herself, and eventually sent to prison for two years. Whilst serving her sentence, her stalker continued to contact her in prison and since her release he has attacked her again.

We also heard from Verna Joseph, a St Lucian woman trafficked to the UK by a gang who had raped her and forced her to carry drugs into the UK. Despite an expert report submitted to the British court confirming that she had been raped and beaten by the gang and the St Lucia police telling the court that they could not protect her, Verna was sentenced to nine years in prison.

After serving five, she was released and claimed asylum, only to have her claim refused and be sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. There, on hunger strike protesting racist and sexist abuse from guards and terrible conditions, Verna battled with a series of appeals – she eventually won her release and asylum along with 22 other women from Yarl’s Wood.

Verna has since been raped again whilst staying at a women’s hostel. The man was arrested and put on trial. But during his trial, his only witness was permitted to sit in court while others gave evidence so she could tailor her evidence to discredit Verna’s story. The man was released, and Verna denied justice once again.

A further harrowing account was given by a young woman from Rotherham, who as a teenager had been taken into care and placed with her paedophile uncle. She had never spoken in public before and everyone was moved to tears.

Looking further afield, Professor Lisa Avalos compared how different countries deal with rape. She found that police disbelief, shaming and suspicion toward rape survivors is also common in other Western countries, but that the UK is exceptional in its draconian prosecution policy. She has ‘not found any country that pursues these cases against women rape complainants in the way the UK does. The UK has an unusual approach and I think that approach violates human rights’.

Nigel Richardson, Layla’s and Rhiannon’s solicitor, commented that he had not seen the police investigate any other crime with the dogged, vindictive enthusiasm with which they pursue suspected false rape allegations: digging into women’s pasts to pin stains on their character, threatening friends and family members and concocting elaborate stories in which women violently attacked themselves.

The speakers told us their stories with palpable courage, struggling through the pain of their memories and the indignities they had been forced to suffer to have their truths heard. We were reminded that these cases perpetuate trauma for victims of sexual violence, dragging their experiences long into the future as they suffer the injustices that accompany a criminal record and the pain of not being believed or achieving justice. Amongst speakers and the audience, who often gasped in shock and fury at the details of these women’s stories, there was an atmosphere of care, solidarity and a resolution to move forward. Our host, John McDonnell MP, pledged his ongoing support to the campaign.

The discussion unfolded a commitment to stop these practices, and to connect this struggle to others: one person reminded us of institutionalised abuse of disabled people that went unaddressed; another of police and politicians’ negligence and complicity in widespread child abuse in Rotherham and elsewhere; the galling hypocrisy of police that claim to have neglected rape investigations out of fear of being called racist when they continue to harass, criminalise and sometimes kill people of colour was highlighted; sex workers complained about police turning out en masse to dispossess them in Soho under the guise of tackling sex trafficking while refusing to investigate attacks against them.

As Verna Joseph concluded for us: ‘Everywhere our stories of survival are coming out. We won’t be silenced. We’ll keep on fighting and we will have justice in the end, all of us.’

Help us win justice for rape survivors. Support the campaign to clear Layla Ibrahim’s name.

[1] 2013 Rape Crisis – http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/mythsampfacts2.php 

Why do the police deal with rape cases so badly? Lisa Longstaff in the Guardian

Their record in rape cases is abysmal – and they seem to resent accountability, preferring to improve PR rather than performance

Lisa Longstaff
theguardian.com, Monday 4 March 2013 09.00 GMT

Allegations of sexual violence and cover-up are threatening every institution. Can rape be dealt with when so many in authority are themselves guilty? Of course it can. But first the police, charged with enforcing the law, must change.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has investigated London’s Sapphire rape units nine times in seven years – that’s 19 officers disciplined, three dismissed, one imprisoned for fraudulently closing rape cases and another under investigation.

The latest IPCC report reveals the Southwark police policy to press women to withdraw or retract rape allegations. “This local standard operating procedure, authorised by senior officers, increased the number of incidents that were classified as ‘no crime’ and therefore increased the sanction detection rates for the unit” (by 25%-30%).

This was also policy in five other London boroughs. Fiddling the figures is fraud, and enabling rapists to go free amounts to criminal conspiracy. How many of the victims denied protection were raped again or worse? We already know that one alleged attacker killed his children. Were other women raped by these men? Did any victims denied justice take their own lives?

Further, victims who retract allegations can face prosecution. Layla Ibrahim and Gail Sherwood were both prosecuted in 2010 (as were at least 30 others). Both said they were pressed to retract under threat of prosecution. One did, the other refused. Both were imprisoned.

We have been campaigning against the prosecution of women who report rape. In 2011, 27 organisations signed our letter to the director of public prosecutions. He responded with guidance: the CPS should not prosecute women with mental illness, girls under 18 or victims of domestic violence. But he refused to acknowledge that negligent and biased investigations can result in jail for rape victims rather than rapists.

We are working with three women facing criminal charges. Several others were prosecuted for harassment after their rapists made counter allegations and were believed. Sex workers who reported violence were also prosecuted.

Last year, in a landmark human rights case, the daughter of a Women Against Rape volunteer won compensation from the police, following seven years of campaigning, after Southwark Sapphire lost evidence of the rape. The rapist was acquitted; we later learned he had been accused of another rape. A damning IPCC report found that Sapphire detectives were told to prioritise motor crime over rape. Four junior officers were disciplined. But the commander who set the policy went on to the National Centre for Policing Excellence – setting standards.

The IPCC now reveals that two senior officers involved in the case of serial sex offender Kirk Reid (who is thought to have assaulted between 80 and 100 women) were promoted, rather than disciplined. One later retired on full pension.

In 2009 and 2012 we met the heads of Sapphire. We demanded they stop promoting bad officers, and opposed their proposal to prosecute rapists for offences other than rape. We later wrote to DCI Duthie: “…resources will be diverted into gathering ‘intelligence’ for less serious crimes, avoiding a thorough investigation of the sexual violence allegations … Is it to do with officers having their own agenda rather than paying attention to what the victim reports?” We warned that “police priorities would again be skewed, the myth that rape is difficult to prosecute reinforced, and thus that there is no point investing too much into investigating it”.

We pointed to the separation of rape from domestic violence as a major obstacle, since more than half the rapes reported in London are by partners or ex-partners. Different units deal with each crime, so the full picture is hidden – cases are dropped or prosecutions fail.

Why do the police deal with rape so badly? Some are rapists themselves – a 2012 IPCC report, produced with the co-operation of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), looked at 54 accusations of sexual assault against officers. Some are sexist – a 2005 Home Office study revealed that many officers believed women are liars. Some are lazy or incompetent. Those officers who are committed to doing their job and seeing victims get justice clearly have less influence over priorities.

Like many in positions of power, the police seem to resent accountability. They have responded to anti-rape campaigning by improving their PR rather than their performance, and befriending the voluntary sector.

The IPCC helps them. Created to police the police, it shamelessly endorses the police claim that the problem is “historic” rather than current. In December 2012 the IPCC invited Eaves, Rape Crisis, NIA Ending Violence, Victim Support and the Havens to meet. The IPCC says all agreed that Sapphire, though patchy, has improved; all that is needed, it seems, is for frontline police to be trained in “informed consent” and “cultural issues”. Each one of these organisations (statutory or voluntary) is funded by the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice or the police. Those of us who are independent of police and government were not invited.

If senior officers were prosecuted when they pervert the course of justice, sexual violence investigations would improve. So would the behaviour of men, beginning with those in authority.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/04/police-behaviour-sex-attacks-women-change