What the Cyprus rape case tells us about justice in Europe

Judicial systems across the continent are failing victims of rape.

Cyprus rape case
Protesters supporting a British woman found guilty of lying in a rape case in Cyprus, take part in a march in London on January 6, 2020 [Reuters/Toby Melville]

“They asked me to say that it wasn’t a rape.”

These words were spoken in court on by a 19-year-old British woman about the police detectives who interrogated her after she reported being gang-raped in a resort town in Cyprus in July of last year.

Soon after arriving at the Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa, the teenager met an Israeli man and became romantically involved with him. During one of their nights together in his room, his friends entered and took turns assaulting her, according to her testimony.

“I tried to cross my legs. I was trying to throw my arms about. I don’t know how many of them raped me. I couldn’t see,” she said.

Fleeing the hotel, she went to a nearby medical clinic and the police were called. Twelve Israeli men and boys, aged 16 to 22, were taken into custody.

But two weeks after the incident, the young British woman was taken back to the police station and questioned for eight hours without a lawyer or translator present; the session was not recorded. She then signed a statement retracting her sexual assault claims and was immediately charged with “mischief” by the police for giving a false statement.

She was jailed for a month in Nicosia prison and only released after she handed over her passport to the local authorities.

Commenting on the arrest of the teenager, Nicoletta Charalambidou, a Cyprus-based lawyer, said: “It was never clear… when she ceased to be a victim of a crime and became a suspect of another crime.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli men accused of raping her were released and allowed to travel home where they were greeted as heroes. At the airport, they were seen popping champagne bottles and chanting “the Brit is a whore”. 

Despite testimony given by a pathologist saying the British teenager had 35 bruises over her body, which proved force was exerted on her, and a statement by a psychologist that the victim was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, on January 7 a Cypriot court found her guilty of the crime of public mischief, handing her a suspended four-month sentence.

Various legal experts have said that there were major irregularities in the investigation and court proceedings. Yet the local authorities have defended their actions and have even demanded an “apology” from the British teenager.

What happened in Cyprus is not unique to the country. In recent years, Europe has been shaken by a growing number of rape cases in which the victims have been disastrously failed by the system.

In 2012, in France, two women came forward with allegations that they had been gang-raped as teenagers on an almost daily basis for years by a group of young men.

One of the women testified in court that “at least 25” youths were present during the rapes while she screamed for help. The case riveted the nation.

Yet, on October 11, 2012, a French jury handed down a combination of acquittals and light sentences to 14 men, accused of the rapes, some of whom were minors at the time of the incidents. Under French law, minors convicted of gang rape can receive terms as long as 10 years in prison – but none received sentences longer than a year. The problem in the case was supposed “lack of material evidence“.

In a statement, a French feminist organisation said: “This verdict sends a catastrophic message to the whole of our society. To rape victims: bringing a complaint is useless. To rapists: you’re allowed to rape!”

In 2016, in Spain, five men were accused of raping an 18-year-old girl. The trial which was dubbed “La Manada” (Spanish for wolf pack) ended in 2019 with the five suspects handed lighter sentences for charges of “sexual abuse”. The judges presiding over the case justified their decision not to charge them with rape with the lack of resistance from the victim.

One of them even called for the acquittal of the accused perpetrators, claiming that this was just “sexual acts in an atmosphere of merriment and rejoicing”.

Across Europe, statistics are showing that rape reports are on the rise but convictions do not necessarily follow that trend. In France, it is estimated that in 2017, 65,000 French women were raped but only 14,000 police reports were filed and only 1,200 rape convictions were delivered. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of police reports filed with rape allegations increased by 52 percent; for the same period, the number of convictions decreased by 23 percent.

In England and Wales, in 2018, only 17 percent of rape victims filed complaints with the police. While the number of rape reports went up by 160 percent between 2012 and 2017 (from 16,000 to 41,500), the percentage of convictions in rape cases sent to court dropped from 52 to 43 for the same period.

One strategy that the Crown Prosecution Services has allegedly adopted to dodge criticism of low conviction rates has been to drop “weak rape cases” from the system.

Clearly, the central reason rapists walk free in Europe is that the justice system in European countries, like elsewhere, continues to be skewed in their favour.

One factor ties together sexual assault and its legal outcomes across widely disparate countries and societies: power. 

Law enforcement, courts, business and governments continue to be run, overwhelmingly, by men. Men hold the power when it comes to critical decisions regarding women’s lives.

British media have reported on the personal ties that some families of the accused Israelis in the Cyprus case have to powerful political figures – one to Jerusalem’s mayor, another to an Israeli government minister.

The governments of Israel and Cyprus share close strategic and business ties. On January 2, the two countries along with Greece signed a $6bn deal for a gas pipeline which would carry Israeli and Cypriot gas to the Greek island of Crete.

We can only speculate whether politics and business influenced the outcome of the Cyprus rape case or whether it was the gender bias of the Cypriot judicial system.

But its outcome reaffirms deeply embedded toxic ideas about what manhood means and what it is entitled to. This, like many other cases of judicial leniency, surely does not discourage men from committing sexual assault. 

Not listening to and not believing women does more than threaten lives. It enables predatory young men to conclude that when it comes to committing sexual violence – they have nothing to fear.

While in the past two years the #MeToo and the #IBelieveHer movements have opened public debates about sexual violence and justice, it is clear we have a long way to go.

Patriarchal power structures, existing for millennia, will not go quietly. This is going to be a long struggle and one of the first steps in it should be pushing for an overhaul of judicial systems to remove gender bias from laws and courtrooms.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.