The Guardian, 31 December 2019
What happened to the teenager is a stain on the Cypriot justice system. Not believing women, however, is almost universal
The message to foreign women thinking of booking a holiday in Cyprus could hardly be more stark: if you are attacked don’t expect the authorities to help you. On the contrary, reporting a rape carries a significant risk that it won’t be properly investigated, as appears to have happened to the 19-year-old British woman who went to the police in Ayia Napa in July saying she had been gang-raped. Moreover, you might end up deprived of your own liberty.
The teenager found herself convicted on Monday of inventing the whole thing, and faces a potential prison sentence when she appears at the Famagusta district court next week. Predatory young men, on the other hand, might easily come to the conclusion that they have nothing to fear.
The case now has all the ingredients of an international incident, following a highly unusual intervention from the Foreign Office. A spokesman has described events in Cyprus as “deeply distressing” and says that the UK is “seriously concerned” about the young woman’s right to a fair trial. While limiting damage to the tourist industry may have been the primary concern of the Cypriot authorities, it has backfired spectacularly. The UK is also an important ally and has military bases on the island. Whatever is being said publicly, it’s likely that frantic discussions are taking place behind the scenes, seeking a way out of what is fast becoming a public relations disaster.
While some elements in this shocking case are particular to Cyprus, it highlights a culture of disbelief towards victims that is almost universal. That distrust expresses itself in different ways, depending on the jurisdiction, and it appears that the investigation in Ayia Napa was flawed from the outset. In the UK, victims often complain about the length of time a rape inquiry takes, but the Cypriot investigation was over in just 12 days. How can a thorough investigation into an alleged rape with multiple perpetrators be carried out in such a short space of time? Yet all the accused boys were released and allowed to return home to Israel.
The young woman’s legal team claim that local police failed to collect evidence from the hotel room where the incident took place, didn’t secure the crime scene and showed no understanding of the impact of traumatic events on the complainant’s memory.
Instead of treating her as a young and vulnerable witness, they interviewed her on her own late at night, with neither a lawyer nor a family member present. The Cypriot police do not record interviews, so there is no independent record of what happened during the seven hours before the teenager signed a “retraction”, which she says she did under duress.
This sequence of events is a stain on the Cypriot justice system, but what lies behind it is a hugely disproportionate anxiety about false accusations. Indeed it is one of the principal myths that undermine rape investigations, even though the idea that there are high levels of false allegations is unsupported by evidence. In the UK, a handful of widely publicised cases that ended in acquittals or a decision not to proceed to trial has tainted the entire system for investigating rape. Many people do not understand that a decision not to prosecute reflects an assessment of the available evidence, and does not mean the victim was lying.
The Crown Prosecution Service denies the accusation that it has become “risk averse”, but there has been a 52% drop in the number of rape cases prosecuted since 2016, despite an increase of 43% in complaints to the police. According to the latest figures for the year ending in March 2019, there were 58,657 allegations of rape in England and Wales but only 1,925 successful prosecutions. Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, it simply defies belief that more than 55,000 women are lying about being raped every year.
The truth is actually much worse: a habit of treating women as untrustworthy witnesses has imbued our own criminal justice system with a corrosive degree of suspicion. It’s far from unusual for victims to face intrusive demands for personal information, including school and medical records. They are made to feel as though they, rather than their alleged attackers, have shameful secrets in their past.
These developments have not gone unchallenged. The Centre for Women’s Justice is seeking a judicial review of the way the CPS makes decisions in rape cases, while the information commissioner is investigating a complaint from myself, the London victims’ commissioner and women’s groups about excessive demands for complainants’ private data.
In the meantime there can be no doubt that thousands of sexual predators are going free. Some of them, no doubt, will attack again. And while we rightly shudder at the treatment a British teenager has received in Cyprus, we should not forget that our own criminal justice system is in crisis – or that it lets down rape victims every day.
• Joan Smith is chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board