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London protest for Cyprus rape survivor case
The Gemini Project, a campaign against sexual violence, organised a London protest in solidarity with the rape survivor at the centre of the Ayia Napa rape caseVia Instagram @thegeminiproj

How the Ayia Napa rape case fired up Cyprus’ feminist activists

In a country where protests are few and far between and women’s rights stagnate, the sexual assault of a young British woman fuelled momentum for much-needed change

The rapist is you,” chanted a horde of protesters outside court in Cyprus earlier this month, a direct verbal attack on the present authorities. Some had their mouths covered in scarves, to represent the silencing of survivors, holding signs that read “we believe you” and “Cyprus justice, stain on you”. The group represents a growing number galvanising in the wake of the country’s treatment of a 19-year-old British woman, who was allegedly gang-raped in Ayia Napa.

In July 2019, while on a working holiday in the notorious party town, the teenager filed a police report claiming she had been raped by several men in her hotel room. 12 Israeli youths were arrested the next day – five of them were later released after no DNA evidence was found – but just over a week later, the woman retracted her allegations, signing a police statement saying she’d lied about the whole thing. The ‘admission’ came after eight hours of questioning without a lawyer or family member present, and despite the woman – and the suspects – having bruising consistent with a sexual assault.

The scenes that followed have been compared to Netflix’s true-crime drama series, Unbelievable – Cypriot police charged the teen with “giving a false statement over an imaginary offence”, convicting her of the crime January 7 and giving her a four-month suspended sentence and a fine. The accused men – who may have had backing from powerful political figures – returned home to jubilant cheers and a champagne welcome, as they roared: “The Brit is a whore”.

The case has rightly sparked worldwide outrage, with campaigners accusing the authorities in Cyprus of coercing the woman into giving a false retraction, as well as mismanaging the investigation. In addition to ignoring her injuries, the authorities seemed to dismiss the discovery of five used condoms, 13 condom wrappers, and DNA matching three of the boys, along with three unrecognised samples as unsuspicious – instead, suggesting in reports that the girl had consensual sex with a number of the boys, later regretting it after it emerged the men had video footage. 

The young woman’s experience highlights a systemic issue in Cyprus and beyond – how sexual assault survivors are inherently distrusted. The outrage around this particularly galling example, though, has seen the reengerising of feminist activism in Cyprus. Although protesters lined the streets in the UK, calling for a boycott of the holiday destination, it was Cypriot women’s groups and individuals whose solidarity and support brought the failings of the country’s criminal justice system to a wider spotlight, galvanising citizens to keep up a fight for much-needed reform in local law and in the culture surrounding sexual assault and rape.

“For various reasons, Cyprus doesn’t have the culture of actually going onto the streets (to protest),” Eleni Karaoli, the secretary of the Cyprus Women’s Lobby, tells Dazed. “Our whole economy collapsed and we didn’t go to the streets! So even (though it’s a) sad situation, it looks like we have awoken and realised that we have power.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Argentoula Ioannou, lawyer and founder of the Network Against Violence Against Women (NAVAW), said the case had “given an explosion to the voice of women who have been very angry since the murders” committed by army captain Nikos Metaxas, who killed seven domestic workers and two of their children between 2016 and 2018. Ioannou continued: “What has been happening in our country is very, very wrong. It is anger that we are turning into action now.” The 2019 case raised a number of concerns about women’s rights in the country – including criticisms of the conditions that housemaids work under – and saw the authorities face accusations that they ignored reports when the victims first went missing.

“Cyprus doesn’t have the culture of actually going onto the streets... but it looks like we have awoken and realised that we have power” – Eleni Karaoli, Cyprus Women’s Lobby

According to a 2018 Amnesty International report of sexual violence in EU member states, Cyprus has the highest rate of reporting incidents (27 per cent), but one of the lowest when it comes to convictions. Despite pledging to improve gender equality and laws surrounding violence against women over the last few years, Cyprus still has very few women in parliament, while sexist attitudes continue to dominate the country’s mass media. Even during the teenager’s case, the Cyprus Women’s Lobby (CWL) had to report certain local newspaper headlines to the country’s ethics committee “because of the way they were handling the case”, ultimately winning cases against three of the publications.

While the authorities treated the young woman as a suspect, and allowed her alleged rapist to initially walk free without questioning, CWL was working closely with her to ensure she got adequate support, connecting her with English-speaking psychologists and moving her from the hotel where the 12 suspects were also staying. Before her sentencing, the group called on the president to grant her a pardon if she was convicted with a prison sentence, but instead the judge claimed to be giving the young woman a “second chance” by issuing a suspended sentence and allowing her to return to the UK. “This was very clever,” Karaoli explains, “because then the president didn’t have to give a pardon. If there was no suspension of penalty, then the president wouldn’t have any other option (but to grant a pardon).” 

Although the group’s work was vital in supporting the young woman, Karaoli asserts that this case speaks volumes about the power of individuals. “Rape and sexual harassment are here, and we need to face them united,” she tells Dazed, explaining that this show of solidarity is evidence of the growing frustration surrounding the country’s criminal justice system when it comes to sexual violence. Referencing both the teenager’s case and the recent serial killings, Susana Pavlou, director of the Mediterranean Institute for Gender Studies, told TIME: “This has been the year our broken system has been exposed.”

“We do not have equal pay, even today we live in a strongly patriarchal society,” says Karaoli, “and this is reflected in the constitution, the judges, the laws. We have a cabinet of 11 ministers and only one woman. Even our hospitals don’t have rape kits – in so many cases that go to court, (defence) lawyers say that samples are inadequate because they aren’t taken in accordance with protocol, and the court accepts that.”

Speaking to The Telegraph, lawyer and women’s rights activist Mine Atli said that the police should be investigated for their conduct in the case, particularly their failure to record the day of questioning that led to her retraction. “It’s a problem we face across the island,” she explained. “There’s a belief that women are lying and that even if they are not, rapists don’t deserve long sentences.”

As well as exposing failings in Cyprus’ system and emboldening Cypriot activists, the case has also united feminists in Israel. Ruhama Weiss, the director of pastoral counseling at the Hebrew Union College, rallied a group of around 60 Israeli women to travel to Cyprus to protest outside the court. “I was ashamed and angry,” Weiss tells Dazed. “I was ashamed of the young boys’ behaviour and of pictures of the festivities they held after their return to Israel. I was ashamed that anyone in the world would think I was not condemning them – for anyone to think that because I’m Israeli, I support them. I went to Cyprus when I realised that if I don’t want to be part of the problem, I have to be part of the solution.” 

“It’s a problem we face across the island. There’s a belief that women are lying and that even if they are not, rapists don’t deserve long sentences” – Mine Atli, lawyer and women’s rights activist

Weiss says that the attitude to the case in Israel is “very polarised”, explaining that while many people are pleased the boys have been released, they also condemn their actions, especially in relation to the filming and distribution of footage of one of the men having sex with the girl – something that’s been illegal in Israel since 2014. Global critics have suggested that the boys should be prosecuted for revenge porn in their home country.

Although the activists’ outrage and mobilisation didn’t acquit the woman completely, there’s no doubt their protests offered invaluable support to the teen and put pressure on the judge to give a suspended sentence as opposed to sending her to prison. Since the case, the teenager’s lawyers have lodged an expedited appeal request against her conviction, with the woman vowing to fight to clear her name.

The unity of the Cypriot and Israeli women continues to demonstrate the power of – especially female – solidarity, which will be vital in the coming appeal and continued fight for protections. “(This case is evidence that) from now on, feminists will wage international struggles to support victims of sexual violence,” Weiss concludes. “Someone said that this solidarity reminded them of the way Israel is dealing with natural disasters. In these cases, the country sends rescue missions to various places around the world – now, we should make sure to send feminist ‘rescue missions’ in cases where the local justice system harms victims of sexual violence.”

In statements since, CWL tells Dazed that the case highlights, once again, “the urgent need to establish and implement protocols for sexual violence complaint management and victim support, both by the Cyprus police and the judiciary, and by any other competent authorities and ministries. What has become apparent again is the lack of any type of protocols for reporting rape.” The group is now demanding the minister of justice and public order, as well as the chief of police – where appropriate – to immediately take necessary steps to examine all procedures and practices that are currently being followed and applied by the police to handle complaints of sexual abuse and rape. CWL is also calling for the minister of health to develop protocols for the handling and training of medical officers to help victims of sexual violence, and for providing all medical centres with rape kits.

Karaoli hopes the energy of this activism won’t be lost in Cyprus, despite the girl having returned home to the UK. “For the Cyprus Women’s Lobby, one important thing is for rape and sexual violence victims to be dealt with in accordance with the law,” she explains. “We need to keep the momentum created by feminists, and not only change (the justice system) but also the culture more widely.”