Daily Telegraph, Monday 27 January 2020
Earlier this month, it was the top story on news bulletins. A British teenager found herself in the eye of a storm, as reporters and protesters converged on a court in Cyprus. Photographs in which she tried to conceal her face were on just about every front page, sending shivers down the spine of any woman who could imagine herself in a similar situation.
Five months earlier, the 19-year-old had gone to the police in Ayia Napa in a distressed state, alleging that she had been gang-raped by a group of 12 Israeli tourists. Ten days later, she retracted the claim – something she has since said was done under pressure.
The young men always protested their innocence and were allowed to return home, cleared of any wrongdoing. The British woman, meanwhile, found herself in court, where she was convicted of wilfully indulging in ‘public mischief’ (strange language for making a false allegation).
Three weeks ago, she was spared jail and given a suspended sentence – meaning she could fly home to the UK – amid widespread anger over the fairness of her trial and the message her conviction sent to would-be predators in Cyprus. Were female tourists even safe to travel there?
Suddenly, everything went strangely quiet. The woman was home and life moved on. For us, at least.
Now, in a development that is likely to bring the case back into the headlines – and pose awkward questions for the British government – she has given a searing interview to a British tabloid. It is her first public account of what she says happened that night in July, and it makes for distressing reading.
The young men in question were released by the police after a brief investigation, lasting less than two weeks, and allowed to return to Israel. For her part, the young woman insists that the ‘retraction’ she signed after being interrogated by two male police officers, late at night and without a lawyer present, was obtained under duress.
Many people in Cyprus, the UK and Israel – where some of the boys chanted “the Brit is a whore!” on their arrival at Ben Gurion airport – were shocked by these events. In a highly unusual development, the UK Foreign Office went on the record, with the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, declaring he had “very serious concerns” about the woman’s treatment and had discussed them with his Cypriot counterpart. “We have registered our concerns in crystal clear terms,” he said in a TV interview at the beginning of January.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman got involved as well, saying the Prime Minister was “pleased” by the news that the young woman would be able to return home. But he added that the British government had highlighted its “concerns about the judicial process in this case and the woman’s right to a fair trial”.
These are heavyweight interventions by any standards. So what has happened since then? The answer, it would seem, is nothing. Despite the outcry in this country, the British government has been tight-lipped. If it has made further representations to the government of Cyprus, we certainly haven’t heard about them.
What message does this send to other British women who might be considering a holiday in Ayia Napa? The young woman, whose identity is protected for legal reasons, has urged other women to boycott Cyprus.
The British government has close connections with the island, not least because it has military bases there. But it is far from being the only holiday destination that attracts young women on a summer break before going to college or university. They assume the local police will treat them respectfully if they get into trouble – and they also expect support from the British government.
That might include calling on the proper authorities for a thorough and impartial investigation of any rape allegation involving a British citizen. Given the degree of concern about the handling of the Ayia Napa case, it is hard to understand why the British government hasn’t called for a new investigation at the very least – and offered assistance from experts who understand the need to treat complainants as extremely vulnerable witnesses.
Instead, the young woman and her lawyers have been left to launch an appeal against her conviction, attempting to overturn a criminal record which could place severe restrictions on her future – she had wanted to train as a police officer. One of the issues they have raised is the Cypriot judge’s refusal to hear any evidence about the alleged rape, which should worry anyone who believes in the right to a fair trial.
The ramifications of this case go beyond the fate of a single young woman, traumatic though her experience has undoubtedly been. At a moment when the criminal justice system in the UK has been criticised for a worryingly low level of convictions in rape cases, ministers now face questions on a different front.
Even if they avoid Ayia Napa, British women will go on booking holidays in party resorts where alcohol is cheap and men are on the look-out for sex. Does the British government care what happens to them? In the wake of this highly disturbing case, the women of this country are entitled to know whether we can expect more from the Foreign Office than words.