Outside a courtroom in Cyprus this week, demonstrators from Cyprus, Israel and Britain gathered to chant: “We believe her”. In a case that has sparked feminist outrage across three countries, a young British woman was given a four-month prison sentence, suspended for three years, and a €148 fine, after her conviction for fabricating a rape charge. She was ruled to have “wilfully indulged in public mischief” through her allegations.
The incident occurred last July in Ayia Napa, the Cypriot holiday town beloved of Brits. There for the summer before she was due to begin university, the 19-year-old from Derbyshire said she was raped by a group of Israeli tourists. She says she was held down and filmed without her consent.
Ten days after the incident was reported, she retracted her statement after being interrogated unrecorded for eight hours with no legal representation, interpreter or kin present. She says this happened under duress and maintains that she is a victim of sexual violence.
In what protesters have highlighted as a miscarriage of justice, emblematic of the issues highlighted by the Me Too movement, she is the only person convicted in connection with the events that night.
The men, who were initially arrested, returned home in July to a hero’s welcome. They danced with their families at the airport. There were chants of “the Brit is a whore”.
Since the incident, the woman has spent more than a month in jail on remand and was not able to leave the island until now. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, her mother told the Sun in an interview, describing how her “bubbly, beautiful girl” now has panic attacks when she hears men shouting in a foreign language.
Meanwhile, the men have shown no public expression of remorse or regret. This week, one of the Israelis, 19-year-old Yona Golub, told the Mail on Sunday he intended to sue the teenager for compensation.
As she was sentenced, a crowd of some 250 protesters from different parts of the world showed up in support, calling out “Cyprus justice shame on you” and carrying banners reading “I believe her”. One of her legal team told protesters the British teenager could hear them from the courtroom, and that she was moved by their support.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has raised concerns about the handling of the case, saying it was “firmly on my radar” and he felt “relieved” she was returning home. There were also feminist protests in London and Cyprus as she was due to be sentenced. It emerged that the young woman had 35 bruises on her body when she was examined after the alleged attack, but that the judge said these were “jellyfish stings”.
For Israeli feminists, the case is a particular source of shame, not only because the alleged rapists are Israeli, but because of how the accused were lauded on their return. On Monday, some 60 Israelis, most of them women but also some men, flew to Cyprus join the protest. They met with the woman’s mother on Monday night.
Avi Blechman, one of the cohort, tweeted that he was, “in tears after a short meeting w [sic] mother of the British young woman who came to tell us how thankful she is with our support”.
Veteran feminist activist Elana Sztokman tells me she felt compelled to be there to protest what she describes as a “terrible miscarriage of justice that affects women in particular”. It is yet another example, she says, of sexual violence accusers not being believed.
Even by the best version of their story, Sztokman argues, some of the men had sex with a woman “who is now saying that she was hurt by this… who is visibly hurt, this is not something the boys should be celebrating, this is not something that the families should be celebrating. This is a time for the families to have some very serious talks with their kids about how to recognise when you are hurting someone, at the very, very least.”
It is a particularly Israeli story, she adds, because of the nature of the young men’s triumphant return home, yarmulkes on their heads in a nod to piety. “The idea that they are all religious and they are singing these religious songs speaks to something deep in Israeli culture” about assuming religious people are moral, about letting them off the hook. “In Israel,” she says, “You often see male defendants put on a yarmulke at their trial to show their piety.”
But beyond that, it was also about believing that these men did no wrong, that they couldn’t have done what the young woman alleged, because they were “our guys”. One of the men involved in the story is a semi-professional footballer, Shimon Yusufov, while some of the boys’ parents reportedly have political connections. “These things work to cast these guys as little local ‘good guys’, so to speak… They are all image games that play to dynamics of Israeli culture and social hierarchies.”
Commenting after the sentencing, Michael Polak, the teenager’s English lawyer from the group Justice Abroad, said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “we are pleased she hasn’t been sentenced to a custodial sentence”, but added that the fight for justice continues and that “justice is the first stage of her recovery”.
Polak said her legal team would pursue an expedited appeal through the Cypriot system, and would go to the European courts if they had to. “We were very pleased the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] became involved recently,” he added, saying how it helped show “how unfair the conviction looked objectively”.
If there is any silver lining to this dark story, it is perhaps the show of solidarity for the young woman from supporters, and that people from Cyprus, Britain and Israel came together to put pressure on the authorities over the case.
One of woman’s legal team told protesters after the sentencing that she believes their chanting, which was heard inside the courtroom throughout the proceedings, may have influenced the judge.
For the feminist activist Elena Sztokman, who was present outside the courtroom, this is also about the universality of the case, and its potential to make the cultural shift launched by Me Too. “What’s fascinating is how universal this story is,” she says. “Women are redrawing boundaries because we are saying we share something in common. I’m not Israeli here today, I’m a woman here today.”