On the morning of Monday, January 6th, in the departures lounge in Ben Gurion airport, I asked Professor Ruhama Weiss why she’s going to Cyprus, and what she expects will happen during the trial.
“We’ll meet a group of Cypriot women there, together – Israeli and Cypriot women will unite against the narratives of their own countries, around another narrative – a feminine narrative, where we believe all women”, she replied.
Weiss had organized the Israeli delegation to Cyprus, together with Avi Blecherman from “Situation Room”, a Facebook page operating as an alternative news source for societal issues, in order to stand outside the courthouse, while the sentence of the 19-year old British Woman was declared. The woman who in July 2019 filed a complaint about rape by several Israeli young men, and was later accused of false claims. The Facebook post Weiss wrote about this issue was shared thousands of times within hours, and the delegation quickly grew to an impressive number of Israeli women: young and old, activists and mothers of girls and boys, grandmothers, a father and son, and more.
I joined the delegation as a representative of “The Readeress”, along with thirty other women on the evening flight, and later we were joined by around thirty additional women.
When we landed, we were greeted by Cypriot activists who organized reasonably priced lodging for us, at the Cleopatra Hotel in Ayia Napa, as well as shuttles from the airport to our hotel, to the courthouse in Paralimni, and back to the airport.
The Network Against Violence Against Women, where these women are active, was founded in October 2019 in response to seven murders of women in Cyprus by a serial killer, a 35-year old officer in the Cypriot national guard. “The story of the Brit was an outlet for the anger that many Cypriot women had accumulated due to the number of murder cases here. This is a sad case that gave us an opportunity to change the system and step into the light. This is an opportunity for us, Cypriot women, to confront the system and demand new policies”, lawyer Argentoula Ioannou, one of the network’s founders, told The Readeress.
After arriving in Ayia Napa, we got dinner together and were joined by the mayor of a nearby city, who had supported the defendant, and came to support her in court the next day as well. The defendant’s mother also joined us, wishing to thank us for our support. After dinner we sat in a circle, presenting ourselves and telling our stories.
Sixty women, sixty stories: each knows exactly what it feels like when no one believes you. Each has her own bad experiences with the system, and the profound understanding that in real-time, it will be hard to find the support needed within it.
We returned to the hotel late at night, and in five hours we’ll board shuttles to the courthouse, to stand beside the young Brit. I tried to organize my thoughts and write the stories shared by women that night. I sat on the balcony, and as I watched the rain pouring down over the pool, I realized why I became a journalist.
This story is a story of utmost importance for this one woman’s life. This is her private, insurmountable tragedy. It’s six months of alienation, post-trauma and bureaucracy in a foreign language. It’s a life-long stain and incredible damage to her soul, body, and future.
However – to be completely honest, this isn’t just her story. It’s not unique to this time and place. This story happens thousands of times, in thousands of places, at different times, or in parallel, across all of human history.
To paraphrase Dr. Viki Shiran, and in a pompose nature fit for this absurd situation: in the face of distortion, dis-information, indifference and disregard, you need to breathe deeply – and write. Write the story of this young British woman, that in moments went from being the victim to being accused.
Let’s Start from the End
On Tuesday, January 7th, the young British woman was given a four-month suspended sentence, on the condition she wouldn’t commit any felony on Cyprian soil in the next three years. As I write these words, she is on her way home to England.
The sentence was read in a tiny courtroom, filled to the brim with journalists from all over the world. The sentencing was in Greek, while the defendant had a translator.
The courtroom curtains were closed, under orders from the police at the scene. The noise from outside the courthouse filtered inside in waves, dozens of activists from England, Israel, and Cyprus surrounded the courthouse, climbed on the balconies, waved signs and shouted – we believe you.
The young British woman hear the voices. As the sentence was read she stood before the judge and the police officer standing next to her opened the curtain a little, discreetly, so she could see the activists waiting for her outside.
The young woman’s glance didn’t waver from the judge during the reading, but you couldn’t miss the energy flowing up her spine every time the judge needed to raise his voice to be heard above the noise from outside. Her hands were folded, a sort of weak self-embrace. Her mother sat behind her, crossing her fingers. In this small, overflowing courthouse we were having all the feels.
After reading four pages of Greek, that few of the people present could comprehend, the judge turned to the defendant to deliver her sentence, in Greek of course.
“All though I was deeply troubled by your lie, and that it resulted in the arrest of 12 innocent boys, her psychological state, her youth, that she has been away from her family, her friends and academic studies this year. This has led me to decide to give her a second chance and instead of the maximum penalty for this type of crime, a fine of 1700 Euro and jail, I sentence you to a 140 Euro fine and four months sentence, suspended for three years.”
The photographers were waiting outside the courthouse. A few minutes after the end of the sitting, the woman’s lawyer exited towards the large audience, along with the woman’s mother. They both thanked the many activists who had come to support the young woman in this difficult time, and especially the Israeli activists. Lewis Power, the lawyer representing the young woman, shared news about the sentence. He said he’s glad the young woman could finally go home, but that the story isn’t over: “We will be seeking an expedited appeal to the Supreme Court of Cyprus and we will also be considering going to the European Court of Human Rights.” He said, and added: “This case has extreme consequences for women travelling abroad”
Sigal Cook Avivi, an Israeli activist who came to the court, pointed out another obstacle – “as long as the conviction stands, the Israeli men can sue her if they wish”.
When the lawyer and the woman’s mother finished speaking, the protestors started signing in English, led by Candia Dimitrio.
Dimitrio, a feminist activist from the British organization, Million Women Rise, told The Readeress about her urgent need to come to the courthouse to support the young woman: “we fight each case of injustice towards women. Whether it’s women who live in the street, or women who need any other kind of help. Our organization has existed for 11 years and includes hundreds of volunteers and activists”.
Miri Margalit, from the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, manages the center’s documentation department. She told us she came here, since after 17 years of work at the center, she has no doubt the woman was raped. “It’s clear to me that no woman would enjoy sex like that. I am here because I am a woman and because I am a grandmother and I think it’s important to tell mothers of boys, men that hurt another woman – it’s clear to me that you’ll love your boys until the end of your days, but at the same time, you need to condemn these actions. It was hard for me to see the delight of those Israeli boys’ parents when they returned to Israel.
Anna Kleinman from LOTEM, the unit for fighting gendered violence (in Israel), told The Readeress that yet again it’s time to stand by rape victims: “when the state institutions failed to protect women who suffered from sexual violence, we stood in solidarity beside activists from all over the world, to sound a strong, clear voice – we won’t desert victims. The sentence may have allowed the young woman to return home to begin the healing process she needs, however, the battle isn’t over. We will continue to fight and support the young woman in whichever proceeding she chooses to pursue in order to annul the disgraceful sentence. What happened today in the court is a lesson for all justice systems around the world: we are the people, and we will continue to support rape victims, until we get justice”.
After six traumatic months in Cyprus, the young woman returned home on Tuesday, hours after her sentence was delivered. The Israeli activists met her in the terminal, for the first time without cameras, without a scarf covering her face, in one intimate moment, they surrounded her, embraced her and whispered over and over – we believe you.
That was the end of the Cypriot episode of this complex story. But in order to understand it, we must go back to the beginning.
On July 17th 2019, at 3:33AM, a British young woman arrived at the medical clinic adjacent to the hotel where she was staying. A few minutes later, she issued a complaint at the police station about a rape that took place in the same hotel, Pambo Napa Rocks, in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, by a group of Israeli young men. She was questioned for hours. At the same time, twelve potential suspects were arrested – young men ranging from 15-22 in age, Israelis, who were also on vacation. Five of them were released soon after, once the police realized they had no connection to the case.
Although Cyprus is a member of the 2016 European Treaty that defines minimal standards for protecting victims of crimes, effectively requiring the state to provide a public defendant at the start of any criminal proceeding, the young woman was questioned without a lawyer present, while the young men received a lawyer almost immediately.
The young woman’s legal team, that was assigned to her in retrospect, claimed that the local police was unable to collect evidence from the hotel room where the events took place, and that the police didn’t secure the scene of evidence tampering. Additionally, the police showed no understanding of the effect that trauma has on victim’s memory regarding events.
The doctor from the Santa Maria clinic, adjacent to the hotel where the young woman was staying, Dr. Sergios Sergiou, who met her moments after the events, said in interviews that he “Believes the girl that she was raped. She was very stressed and having a panic attack. She was crying and screaming and her friends said to me some guys had raped her. I asked her (what happened) but she did not speak to me. She was crying and she said, “I don’t want men next to me”.
The doctor added that usually in cases of false accusations, young people don’t call their parents to update them. In this case the young woman called her mother and told her she was raped. Dr. Sergiou is the one who called the police.
Ten days after she issued a rape complaint, on July 27th 2019, at 2:30AM, the young woman signed a confession stating it was a false claim. The suspects were immediately released and flew back to Israel. Before she signed, the young woman was interrogated for eight hours on her own, without a lawyer or family members beside her. There is no documentation of that interrogation: the Cyprian law doesn’t require police detectives to record their investigations.
At the same time, videos, allegedly, of the night in question began circling. Videos recorded on the cellphones of the young men who were arrested.
On August 4th 2019, the young woman recounted her confession. She was quoted by the British “Sun”, saying: “One moment I was a victim, the next, I was the accused.”, she added: “Eight hours of interrogation, denied access to a lawyer — while those accused of raping me had legal representation immediately”.
She further reported that the police officers stopped her from calling her mother, and threatened to arrest her friends. A text message she sent her friend confirms the argument that she was under the impression that her friends may be arrested if she doesn’t recount her testimony. Additionally, the detectives accused her of fabricating the rape in order to extort money from the company insuring her travels.
Much later, on December 3rd 2019, on the stand as the defendant, she’ll describe the pressure the detectives applied on her to sign the testimony regarding her false claims. She’ll explain her “summer fling” with an Israeli man who presented himself as “Sam”. She was in Sam’s hotel room when his friends entered. “I told them they had to go. Sam told me to lie on the bed and … put his knees on my shoulders”
She’ll say she didn’t know how many men were there, since “Sam’s” body blocked her view. She’ll say she heard them shouting in Hebrew. She’ll say that she managed to escape at some point and started running at some point. The young men chased her and brought her shoes. “Sam” managed to reach her, apologized and tried to hug her. A friend of hers heard the shouts from the stairs, and joined them, confronting “Sam” and taking the young woman to the clinic next door.
“I have never been so scared”, she said in trial.
From there, according to her testimony, her friends took her to the hotel clinic. She got scared and hid in the bathroom. It was the doctor who eventually called the police. “By the time I got to the police station, I had fainted twice”. The interrogation, which started in the wee hours of the morning, lasted until 1pm. Only then was the young woman taken for a medical examination.
To the prosecutor, who tried to point out inconsistencies in her testimony, she said: “I was raped and then spent an entire night without sleep”
The young woman’s testimony in the trial, isn’t very different from the original story in the press, when this saga had just begun. On the other hand, the versions told by the suspects changed frequently, and the version told by “Sam”, the primary suspect, changed three times in his original questioning alone. However, although some of the Israeli men had originally stated they don’t know the woman, and later admitted they were in the room while the events took place, it is she who is accused of false claims, a conviction that still stands today.
The young woman’s testimony wasn’t the only thing supporting her case in trial, before she was convicted of falsifying rape. The legal pathologist who examined the young woman, Dr. Marios Matsakis , testified that there was DNA from four different men on the woman’s body. In addition, he said the rape kit presented in court was incomplete: the clothes she was wearing during the rape were missing. “The woman was obviously in bad shape with a large number of external injuries, most of which were recent” , he said.
Furthermore, her family members said that since the events, she suffers from frequent and severe panic attacks, and post traumatic stress syndrome.
In addition to the pathologist’s testimony, and the woman’s own testimony, the defence submitted another finding: a linguistic expert had examined the woman’s written confession and testified that it clearly seems like it had been written by a non-native English speaker.
The British young woman, comes from an English speaking country. The confession, on the other hand, is full of mistakes that an English speaker wouldn’t naturally make, let alone a native speaker. The Daily Mail published the confession statement, along with a markup of these mistakes. This argument suggests that the woman did not write the confession or even dictate it to the detective, but rather – she signed a pre-written confession.
On December 30th 2019, as the judge read her sentence, accusing her of falsifying rape complaint, he cancelled out her claims, saying: “Exaggerated, confused, contradictory and incoherent.”. Therefore disregarding any claim that a rape took place, and repeated claims that are heard again and again in rape cases – the exact claims and dynamics of mistrust that feminist activists and trauma researchers have been battling for years.
Let us recall that the trial took place while the woman was on the stand, while the young men she accused of raping her were already back home in Israel. Although the claims of the six suspects (after releasing the others) were confused and changed several times. When at first they claimed not to have been in the area, and later admitted to being in the room, she is the one who is presented as “over the top”, “confused” and incoherent.
Suzanna Pablo, who manages the Medditereanian Center for Gender Studies (an NGO located in Cyprus and focused on women’s rights and gender parity) addressed the Judges words, saying: “The way he made his judgement sounded entirely subjective,“No explanation was given about how he weighed the evidence and why he rejected the testimony of the young woman”.
Along the same lines, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Dominic Raab, said he was concerned about an unfair trial. Lisa Nandi, a British MP for the opposition Tweeted: “The message this case sends to victims is that they will become the accused if they report rape.”Additionally, many British tourists (accounting for a third of the tourism in Cyprus) are threatening to boycott the island as a tourist destination.
A look through this judge’s previous cases paints a sinister picture. Two years ago the judge, Michalis Papathanasiou, acquitted a 30 year-old man accused of sexual assault of a 52-year old woman, on the grounds that she had fabricated the claims, seeking revenge against a man she was jealous of. In the two-year old sentence, the judge states: “I listened to the woman carefully and I can’t trust her testimony. The witness wasn’t telling the truth, her testimony shows contradictions, confusion and vague positions”.
With clear similarities to our current story, the judge rejected the accusations since there weren’t enough marks of violence, in his opinion. In our current story, the judge supported the prosecution’s position, claiming the bruises on the woman’s body were caused by jellyfish stings, while the woman denied having been stung.
However, Judge Papathanasiou is not alone:
As published by Masha Aberbuch on “The Hottest Place in Hell” (an independent Israeli news site), a woman named Helen who also lives in Britain, told the British press that 15 years ago, her daughter was forced to recount her complaint of rape in Cyprus, and was also arrested for “wasting the police’s time”. According to the mother’s story, the officers brought the accused rapist into the interrogation room where her daughter was being questioned, and turned them towards each other. “He said he was sorry and he got carried away. The officers heard all of this, and still decided she was the one who was lying”.
Furthermore, Dana Gat, an Israeli activist, tweeted about a story the British Telegraph had published two days ago, regarding a story that took place in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, in 1998; the rape of a 21-year old woman, a tourist from Scandinavia.
According to this woman, who is 43 today, she was raped by two men in the parking lot near a nightclub. She went to the local police and filed a complaint. She told the Telegraph reporters that the detective was “extremely brutal and aggressive. I was in big shock so I had some difficulties remembering details. This made him very angry. He then started accusing me of making the whole story up to receive money from my insurance company”.
The claim regarding the insurance money was echoed 20 years later, at the British woman’s trial in July.
The Scandinavian woman added: “They kept me in the police station for many hours. They told me that if I didn’t withdraw the rape allegation they would arrest me and send me to prison. So I did and they let me go,”
A news article published in Norway in 1998 regarding the case quotes a tour operator who said that “police never take rape claims seriously.”, explaining it’s because they “Have a theory that tourists make such allegations so they can claim expenses for their holiday.” a Cypriot police officer is quoted in the article, saying, “Why rape when it’s so easy to find somebody to have sex with?”
Another article, published in The Irish Times on August 9th, 1997, reports a 22-year old Irish woman on holiday in Cyprus was sent to four months prison for filing a false rape complaint. The woman was on holiday in Ayia Napa with her sister and two female friends, and claimed that she was raped by three Cypriot soldiers who had come for a vacation from their term in Lebanon. The woman eventually recounted her complaint, and according to her confession, she complained to begin with because the soldiers photographed her naked, while she was sleeping.
A lot has happened since 1998. As of today, Cyprus is one of six EU countries that adopted the “Istanbul Treaty”. The treaty adopts a new legal definition of rape, to include any sexual act without consent, regardless of whether force was applied.
An article published in the Cyprus Mail in November 2018, six months prior to the current case, reports that although Cyprus had signed the treaty, the country recorded an exceptionally high number of sexual violence acts reported to the police, but an exceptionally low number of convictions for cases of this nature.
An Amnesty International report from 2018 determines that Cyprus is one of the countries displaying what is called “classic attrition”. The report cites a case where a Cyprian woman complained of rape in 2016, by two men. The men were convicted of rape but their sentence was reduced because no signs of violence were found on the victim’s body.
Is it possible that nothing has changed in Cyprus’ law enforcement and justice system in the last 20 years?
“This story surfaced the deep patriarchal notions that exist in Cyprian society, and the sexism that is present here in the public and private sectors,” says Suzanna Pablo from the Middle Eastern Center for Gender Studies.
To be honest, putting all of the blame on the Cyprian institutional culture would be too easy.
“We here a lot about the presumption of innocence, that determines a person is innocent until proven guilty,” says Elinor Arazi, an Israeli criminal lawyer and law lecturer who came to Cyprus to support the woman.
“On the other hand, when it comes to victims of crimes, in several cases they don’t get the same kind of protection, their voices aren’t heard and they aren’t a party in the proceedings. Along with the accompanying social notions, the victims of sexual crimes go through an almost preset torturous ordeal, starting with the requirement to repeat their testimony several times to different people. The systems interrogating them don’t believe them, and all of this happens in a bad mental state of post trauma as well as difficult emotions like shame and guilt. Those women need to prove, not only to the detectives in front of them, but the whole world, that they are victims and not at fault for the terrible things done to them. When they don’t pass all of the patriarchal stereotype tests, they are immediately accused by society of false testimony and pressured to admit they made it all up. Their reputation and honor is tarnished and they are permanently portrayed as liars and false accusers, even before they are considered suspects.” Says Arazi.
In fact, just like in so many other stories, from Cyprus, Israel and all over the world, and this time as well, we saw how, step by step, the woman was presented as unreliable, even though several findings support her side. We saw how false news – about videos, previous false claims, a pattern, and more, were heard loudly, shadowing the truth. Like other stories, in other places and other times, we saw how doubt crawls into our mind when it’s a woman claiming she was raped, while suspects of the crime walk free of punishment and free of a trial – despite changing their stories several times. Furthermore, we saw a repeating pattern of institutions maintained by this doubt, continuing to convict, women of false rape claims, time and time again.
One more issue
The Cyprian privacy protection act, effective since 2001 and updated in 2003, states that one cannot film a person without due cause. For example, installing CCTV cameras to prevent theft requires proof that the benefits outweigh the harm to privacy and that all of the alternatives have been tried. Furthermore, anyone who installs CCTV cameras is required to report to each person caught on camera regarding any instance of saving footage or sharing it, and to submit a written notice to the local authorities.
The young British woman who was eventually convicted of falsifying rape claims, was accused by the police detectives who interrogated her that she was seeking revenge for the videos the men recorded of her, without her knowledge or consent.
If we leave, for a moment, what we know about misogyny, patriarchy, victim blaming and attrition in the interrogation and legal institutions, and we’ll return to the legal definition of rape as any sexual act without conset – even if it didn’t include violence, we can do the math, adding the privacy act, and the fact that the woman never recounted that she was filmed without her knowledge (specifically, it’s hard to think of a way she could have given her consent to the filming if her view was entirely blocked by a suspect’s genitalia) Is it not worth asking why, while the woman was on trial for such a minor offense, no one was tried for filming her – a non-consensual sexual act that also brakes the privacy law?