We share the outrage of women in Cyprus protesting against the conviction of a 19-year-old British woman who faces prison after reporting gang rape by 12 Israeli men in Ayia Napa. We welcome the UK government’s concern at the unfairness of the trial. But where is the acknowledgement that rape victims in the UK also face prison if they are disbelieved?
The Cyprus police forced the woman to retract after nine hours of questioning without a lawyer; she was then charged for lying. The trial judge refused to hear evidence that the woman had been raped, stating “this is not a rape case, I will not consider whether she was raped or not.”
We have worked with women in the UK who were prosecuted and imprisoned after receiving similar treatment at the hands of the British police. Some way through the investigation into their rape the police decided they did not believe them and turned the investigation against the women without even affording them any of the rights a defendant would have had, such as a lawyer.
We raised this with Keir Starmer when he was Director of Public Prosecutions (2008-13) and was overseeing a review of prosecutions of women who are disbelieved. We insisted he meet the sister of a woman sentenced to three years in prison after being attacked on her way home by two strangers: there was compelling evidence of a biased police investigation and a biased trial. We also wrote to Starmer asking for the prosecution of a woman who was repeatedly raped, again by a stranger, to be dropped. Both women had been pressurised by the police to retract their allegations. The first refused, the second retracted – it made no difference, both were prosecuted and imprisoned.
We told the DPP and his successor Alison Saunders that the policy of prosecuting rape victims who are disbelieved skews police investigations and undermines women’s ability to report rape. It encourages the centuries-old institutional sexism of police and courts which has never gone away despite official pronouncements to the contrary. How else can we explain that 40 years since the birth of the modern-day anti-rape movement rape prosecutions are at an all-time low and still falling: 3% of reported rapes lead to a conviction granting rapists almost complete impunity.
Our warnings fell on deaf ears. Starmer, while claiming to stand with women against rape, refused to stand with victims once the police had disbelieved them. And so today, victims who are accused of lying face longer sentences in Britain than the woman in Cyprus does for the same ‘crime’ – often way longer than the average sentences given to convicted rapists.
We have helped to overturn some cases, proving how easy it is for victims to be treated as perpetrators. One woman had been raped at age 15 and charged with lying when police claimed to have found no sperm on her T-shirt where she’d said her rapist had ejaculated. Our support led to a second investigation by another police force who found the sperm and the man was prosecuted. The woman later sued the police for £20,000. Another teenage girl who reported a sexual assault had her summary fine quashed – it had been issued when police decided they didn’t believe her. We don’t know how many other women are charged and fined similarly, and are too scared or unable to find the help to fight these injustices.
It is not only the criminal courts that are at fault. The family courts are even worse. Mothers who disclose rape and domestic violence by violent ex-partners risk having their children taken away and handed to the father, even when he has a record for rape or DV. The government is due to report on its review of family court treatment of DV victims.
Recent decisions by police and CPS that victims must hand over their whole mobile phone and social media history, medical and counselling records, and that these must be disclosed to their attacker has led to a further drop in rape prosecutions. Like in Cyprus, in most British cases it is not the rapists that are on trial but their victims.
It has been claimed that the Israeli men were let go because Cyprus wants to protect its political and economic relations with Israel. How much do politics influence court decisions in Britain and elsewhere? We don’t know. But we do know that powerful and well-connected men, like Harvey Weinstein whose trial in the US has just begun, are more likely to get away with it. On the other hand, whistle-blowers like Julian Assange whom governments want to silence because they expose rape and murder by the state, are assumed to be guilty of sexual offences even when they haven’t been charged.
Women Against Rape can be contacted at 0207 482 2496 or firstname.lastname@example.org