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‘Our Broken System Has Been Exposed.’ How a British Woman’s Rape Case in Cyprus Has Become a Rallying Cry for Activists

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“Exaggerated, confused, contradictory and incoherent.” With those words, a judge in a Cyprus courthouse on Dec. 30 dismissed the testimony of a 19-year-old British woman who said she had been forced to sign a retraction after reporting being raped by 12 Israeli men in the popular holiday resort town of Ayia Napa last summer. The judge instead found her guilty on a charge of public mischief, and she now awaits sentencing on Jan. 7.

Susana Pavlou, who attended the hearing in solidarity with the woman, says Judge Michalis Papathanasiou’s ruling was yet another example of the victim-blaming attitudes surrounding the case since the summer. “The way he made his judgement sounded entirely subjective,” says Pavlou, director of the Mediterranean Institute for Gender Studies, a Cyprus-based NGO focusing on women’s rights and gender equality. “No explanation was given about how he weighed the evidence and why he rejected the testimony of the young woman. We felt intensely that we were just hearing more of the same.”

The case has sparked an outcry in the U.K., where #IBelieveHer and #BoycottCyprus trended on Twitter as news of the decision spread. And in Cyprus, the young woman’s case has electrified women’s rights activists long fighting for reforms to the way authorities handle rape cases, and has prompted pleas for intervention from the country’s current Attorney General.

The woman, who has not been publicly identified, is now facing up to a year in jail in Cyprus and a fine of $1,500. She already spent more than a month in prison before being granted bail at the end of August, and has not been allowed to leave the island. “This woman has been punished enough,” Nicoletta Charalambidou, a Cyprus-based lawyer on her legal defense team, told TIME ahead of the sentencing on Jan. 7. “It’s brought a whole range of consequences into her life.”

From Victim to Suspect

On July 17, the young woman reported the crime to police just hours after the incident allegedly took place in her hotel room in Ayia Napa, where she had been on a working vacation. (Ayia Napa’s popularity as a tourist destination draws young people from across Europe to work there in hospitality industries over the busy summer season.) She told police that she had been raped by up to 12 young Israeli men; the same day, 12 men were arrested in connection with the complaint.

In an earlier court hearing in December, the woman said that she had initially agreed to consensual sex with one of the group. But the trial this week referred to a video recording of the incident, found on the phones of some of the Israeli men. The woman’s lawyers said that it showed her having consensual sex with one of the group, while telling the other men to leave as they attempted to enter the room. Judge Papathanasiou referred to the video in his decision, saying that the woman had felt “embarrassed” because of its existence and that was “the reason why she initially gave false statements.”

Ten days after the incident was reported, on July 27, the woman was asked to go to a local police station where she retracted her statement. She has since said that she was forced to do so by the Cyprus police, who deny the allegation. Michael Polak, director of Justice Abroad and part of the young woman’s legal team, says that the lack of footage from the police station in Cyprus likely contributed to this. “Nothing is caught on tape or video, so that creates an environment where people can be put under pressure.” According to lawyer Charalambidou, the young woman was also kept at the police station for eight hours without a lawyer on July 27, the day she retracted her statement, and was not properly informed of her rights. She also says that the woman’s right to interpretation and translation were violated. “It was never clear, and still not clear in my opinion, when she ceased to be a victim of a crime and became a suspect of another crime,” says Charalambidou. “She was asked to come into the police station on July 27 as a victim, and she came out as a suspect of committing the crime of public mischief. The line there is very blurred.”

The woman was arrested and detained immediately after retracting the statement, while the men, some of whom are minors, were released and returned home to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on July 29. A group of them were filmed and photographed popping champagne bottles while chanting “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel live) along with “the Brit is a whore,” according to local media.

The woman’s trial began at the start of October with the verdict delayed until Dec. 30. The 12 men were not required to give evidence at the trial — a decision Polak calls suprising. But a pathologist called to give evidence examined the woman’s injuries from photographs and found them consistent with her testimony. He also told the court that there was blood on a used condom found inside the hotel room, as well as DNA from three of the young men inside the condom. “He was quite clear with his evidence that it supported what she was saying,” says Polak.

However, the woman’s legal team say the judge did not want to link the rape case with the actual public mischief case, thus shutting down a major line of defense. “During the trial, the judge on a number of occasions said ‘It’s not about the rape, I don’t want to hear about the rape case,’ so he had closed his mind to one of the major elements,” says Polak. The BBC reported that as Papathanasiou delivered the verdict, he said that “there was no rape or violence,” and that police had thoroughly investigated the case, “making all necessary arrests.”

British woman found guilty of lying about gang rape in Cyprus, Paralimni
A British woman and alleged gang rape victim (C) reacts as she arrives at Famagusta District Court in Paralimni, Cyprus, on Dec. 30, 2019.Katia Christodoulou—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The woman is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, hallucinations, and a condition called hypersomnia that causes her to sleep for 18-20 hours a day, according to her mother. “She needs to get home as soon as possible so she can get the proper treatment,” says Polak. Her family has traveled from Britain to Cyprus to support her through the legal process, which has also led to the young woman losing her place at university. The family has started a crowdfunder to help with the high cost of legal fees.

As the case developed this week, so did diplomatic tensions, as U.K. government officials called the situation “deeply distressing.” The U.K. Foreign Office can get involved in cases abroad where they believe a British national’s human rights and right to a fair trial have been breached. On Jan. 5, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that he had raised the matter with Cypriot authorities — a move the young woman’s family has welcomed.

Problems in the System

For those following the case in Cyprus closely, the verdict did not come as a surprise. “We knew it from July, when the accusation of rape came up, that the system would fail this woman,” says Zelia Gregoriou, associate professor at the University of Cyprus and founding member of the Network Against Violence Against Women, a group that demonstrated in solidarity with the woman at the courthouse earlier this week, wearing scarves around their faces with images of lips sewn shut. “Every rape claim is treated pre-emptively as a false rape claim, and that’s why we had to be there. It’s not the exception.” Gregoriou says female victims are often threatened by the police, and warned that they will be exposed and publicly humiliated.

Cyprus ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women in 2017, six years after the treaty was opened for signature. Yet experts say its measures have not been fully implemented and that the country’s authorities are not doing enough to protect women and support survivors.

“This has been the year our broken system has been exposed, whether it’s the criminal justice system, whether it’s the social welfare system, whether it’s our victim support and protection system — this year has revealed just how broken it is,” says Pavlou. A 2014 E.U. survey found that 15% of women aged 18–74 years in Cyprus said they experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. According to a 2018 Amnesty International report, Cyprus has the E.U.’s highest rate of reporting sexual violence to the police, yet experts say that the conviction rate in such cases is low, and that women are often not taken seriously by the authorities.

In June, the country was also rocked by the trial of its first ever known serial killer, when a Greek-Cypriot army officer was handed multiple life sentences for killing five foreign women and two of their children over the course of three years. As more details about the case emerged, questions were raised about the failure of the police to properly investigate the disappearances of these women. “The whole sequence of the various authorities and the way they treat violence against women is problematic,” says Charalambidou. “It’s not a surprise that this case [involving the British woman] is treated in the same way and the same manner.”

Experts say high numbers of cases involving rape and sexual assault drop out of the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons, including victims retracting their statements. Several studies have linked this trend to a lack of support for those who report rape and sexual assault. “Certainly, we don’t have specialized services, like rape crisis centers, so [the British woman] wasn’t offered them because they don’t exist,” Pavlou says.

Rallying Support

The case has energized local women’s rights activists in Cyprus, who say they felt a duty to protect the British woman from the outset of the case. In October, the Mediterranean Gender Institute complained to the country’s broadcast and journalism regulators about the victim-blaming narratives in the media coverage surrounding the case. On Dec. 15, the country’s Journalist Ethics Committee found that several media outlets had violated the young woman’s right to privacy, and that coverage included discrimination based on her gender. Pavlou says that if the sentencing on Jan. 7 is severe, her organization, along with other NGOs that form the Cyprus Women’s Lobby group, is prepared to appeal to the president of Cyprus to intervene.

As Tuesday’s sentencing approaches, Gregoriou plans to return to the courthouse along with several dozen demonstrators. She sees this case as part of a broader struggle in Cyprus. “We fight violence against the British woman and we fight violence against every woman,” says Gregoriou. And after a difficult year for women’s rights in the country, some are hopeful that this case can bring about much-needed change. “We do not have a culture of protest in Cyprus, but we’re seeing that come very much to the fore in recent months,” says Pavlou. “We won’t stay silent, women are speaking up, social media is on fire and that’s all very heartening for us.”

These acts of solidarity have helped give the young woman the strength to continue the case, according to her lawyer. “She feels very supported through social media and messages coming through from the local network in Cyprus, from Israel, from the U.K.,” says Charalambidou. The legal team is currently preparing the ground of appeal, and is willing to take the case to the Supreme Court in Cyprus and potentially the European Court of Human Rights — a lengthy procedure that could last for as many as four years.

“It’s a slow process, but our client definitely wants to pursue all available procedures to clear her name and fight for her rights,” says Charalambidou, who says it is a test case with the potential for impact on Cyprus’ justice system. “Our client is sending a message that she’s not only doing it for herself, but she believes that something has to change in the way that these kinds of cases are handled by states in general, not just in Cyprus.”

Correction, Jan. 7

The original version of this story mischaracterized a convention on preventing and combating violence against women. It is a Council of Europe convention, not a United Nations convention.

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