A British woman found guilty of fabricating a gang-rape claim while holidaying in the Cypriot resort of Ayia Napa, has launched an attempt to clear her name before the island’s supreme court.
In what lawyers described as a critical day for human rights in Cyprus, the 21-year-old Derbyshire student lodged the appeal as supporters protested outside the Nicosia tribunal.
“It’s a very important day,” her Cypriot attorney Nicoletta Charalambidou told the Guardian, saying the Briton was too psychologically drained to attend the hearing herself. “She is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but she is determined to clear her name.”
The woman is seeking to overturn a four-month sentence, suspended for three years, handed down by a district court judge who convicted her of fomenting public mischief after ruling she had lied about being raped by up to 12 Israeli tourists in July 2019.
The guilty verdict had hinged on a written confession in which the then teenager had purportedly admitted falsifying her original complaint.
On Thursday her lawyers, headed by the British QC Lewis Power, submitted a dossier arguing the retraction – which formed almost the entire prosecution case – was extracted under duress in the absence of a lawyer, or translator, after seven hours of incessant police questioning. The withdrawal of the complaint allowed the alleged assailants, who were aged between 15 and 22 and included the sons of senior Israeli officials, to return home.
With her status altered from alleged victim to suspect, the Briton spent more than four weeks in Nicosia general prison before being forced to remain on the island for court proceedings that would drag on for the next six months. For legal reasons she has not been publicly named.
A three-member panel of judges headed by the British-born female jurist Persefoni Panayi is overseeing the appeal.
The 67-year-old judge, who trained in the UK before relocating to Cyprus, assumed the supreme court’s top position last year.
Arriving at the court in the heart of Nicosia, the island’s capital, Power spoke of the anxiety of the student’s family over the trial’s outcome.
“She and her mother are anxious about the result and will be watching from afar,” he told reporters. “This young woman’s story has reverberated around the world since it hit the headlines in 2019.
“It has been both shocking and distressing and has for her been deeply harrowing, humiliating and personally intrusive, yet she has risen above this with determination and has courageously resolved to fight this case to the end where she believes that justice will be done.”
It was his team’s hope, he said, that through the supreme court of Cyprus “this girl can free herself from the shackles of an unjust conviction which has tarnished her young life”.
Michael Polak, who heads the legal aid group Justice Abroad, which is coordinating the appeal, called the conviction a miscarriage of justice, saying if it were not overturned it could have a dramatic effect on the young woman’s life.
“This case is a seminal one for the protection of human rights in Cyprus as well as the treatment of those who report sexual offences,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “It is of the utmost importance for the woman involved to have her unjust conviction overturned, as a conviction such as this can prevent her from applying for certain jobs and is a constant reminder of what happened to her.”
For the first time campaigners say the highest court in the land will have to decide not only whether there had been a fair trial, but whether the Mediterranean island had lived up to its obligations both as an EU member state and signatory to conventions recognising the need to provide support to alleged victims of rape. The one-day hearing is not expected to produce a verdict for several weeks and possibly months.
Activists on the island contend the case has highlighted the problem of rape and the reluctance of local authorities to believe reports of sexual assault.
Accusations of heavy-handedness among male judges in a profoundly patriarchal justice system have been rife. The Briton’s defence team reserved particular criticism on Thursday for the handling of the case by the district court judge Michalis Papathanasiou, arguing he had totally dismissed all defence expert testimony “for no good reason”.
“There has never been a case like this at the supreme court,” said Zelia Gregoriou, a gender studies expert at the University of Cyprus who was among the protesters outside the building. “This woman should never have been put in the dock.”