UK teenager’s conviction touches a nerve with angry Cypriot women

Helena Smith Nicosia
Photograph: Katia Christodoulou/EPA

Famagusta district court is an unlikely springboard for a women’s movement to leap into the headlines. The tired, one-storey building in the small east-coast town of Paralimni is unused to seeing camera crews, much less a clutch of Fleet Street’s finest prowling its corridors.

But even they seemed insignificant next to the protesters who had shown up in support of the British teenager on trial for allegedly fabricating a claim of being gang raped last summer by 12 Israeli youths aged between 15 and 22, in the resort town of Ayia Napa.

Members of the newly created Network Against Violence Against Women (NAVAW), they had come in the pouring rain driven by a burning desire to see a purported injustice addressed.

The fate of the 19-year-old British student – found guilty that day of falsely accusing the Israelis of rape – had brought them to this place, placards and banners in hand. But it wasn’t all. The young woman’s ordeal, as gruelling and unfair as it appeared in their eyes, had galvanised a much deeper fury – one that runs deep in the fabric of a society more Levantine than European.

“It has given an explosion to the voice of women who have been very angry since the murders,” says Argentoula Ioannou, referring to the deaths of seven foreign women and girls at the hands of a serial killer who went undetected by the island’s authorities for years. Bodies of most of the victims were found last year in suitcases in the bottom of lakes on the Mediterranean island. “It is anger that we are turning into action now.”

An activist lawyer who has long been the force behind Cyprus’s single parents’ association, Ioannou helped set up the network in October.

On Tuesday, she will be among the protesters who will again descend on the court – this time with scores of fellow female demonstrators from Israel – for the sentencing of the Briton, who stands convicted of the crime of public mischief. The offence carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a fine of up to €1,700.

“It will be a big protest, a protest like no other,” she warns, calling the teenager’s alleged retraction of the rape claim a travesty of justice. “What has been happening in our country is very, very wrong.”

Few cases have touched such a nerve. On an island where women’s rights are rarely aired publicly, one woman’s fight for justice has stirred an underbelly of grievances so raw few can tell where they will lead.

“It has brought to the surface the problems of sexism and misogyny that we have across the private and public sectors,” says Susana Pavlou of the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies in Nicosia, the divided capital.

“Cyprus has one of the highest rates of tertiary-educated women in the world, which makes you think it’s a rather modern society at first. Then a case like this comes along and all these deeply held patriarchal attitudes, that might not be apparent at first glance, come to the fore.”

From last August, when the trial began, court proceedings had been clouded by what she describes as “gender stereotypes, classic rape myths and victim bashing”.

The resort of Ayia Napa is popular with young holidaymakers from all over Europe. Photograph: Petros Karadjias/AP

The women’s rights battle in Cyprus, like the former crown colony’s often turbulent history, has rarely moved in straight lines. Rather it has regularly been eclipsed by other feuds after a war that has left the island split between Greeks and Turks ever since Ankara ordered a full-scale invasion in 1974 following a short-lived coup aimed at union with Greece.

If they existed at all, say activists, women’s rights groups were linked to political parties and trades unions, and moulded by the rhetoric of those leaders. Although the doughty Pavlou and her institute are an exception – competing regularly for EU-funded projects – most groups, until the foundation of the new network, had been forced to take a back seat.

The result has been deplorably low rates of women in decision-making, a wide gender pay gap and a noticeable absence of state help for working women.

“The Cyprus problem [the political situation] has overshadowed everything in this country,” says Nicoletta Charalambidou, the human rights lawyer leading the British woman’s legal team. “It didn’t allow debate in the women’s movement or about other human rights.”

The NAVAW emerged almost spontaneously from local outrage over the serial killer and the incompetence of a police force that has been accused of disregarding reports of missing migrant women – and in the case of two victims, their young daughters. The self-confessed killer turned out to be a 35-year-old officer in the Cypriot National Guard.

No single event in recent memory had pierced the tranquillity of Cyprus in the same way. Had it not been for the chance discovery of a body in a rain-flooded mineshaft, police might never have launched the investigation that led to the arrest of the army captain.

Declaring that its aim would be to combat domestic violence and racism, the network said 2019 had seen island society severely shaken: “The suitcases opened, and with it the violence against women in Cypriot society was revealed live … on our screens. The Cypriot state was laid bare.”

ayia napa

Network members include representatives of the large number of foreign women doing domestic work in the Greek-run south. And its campaigners stress that as a politically independent watchdog, the group is clear of stigmas of class and race, with lawyers, academics, psychologists and journalists among its founders.

At least one in five women will at some point be the victim of violence in Cyprus, according to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

In a nation where all too often reports of rape are dismissed by authorities neither trained nor sensitised in matters of gender, one of NAVAW’s first acts was to submit a memorandum of proposals to the police on how to deal with such allegations.

One of the greatest points of contention in the case against the British teenager is the alacrity with which detectives stopped investigating the gang rape claims once she reportedly revoked the accusation – a retraction she fiercely denies making voluntarily. Within hours the Israeli youths had been allowed to fly home.

“I helped initiate the network because I was so tired of women not being taken seriously when they reported rape or other forms of violence in police stations,” says Ioannou. “What happened ... is not uncommon. So often when women go to report a rape, they’re told, ‘don’t do it, you’ll be wasting your time’. That has helped breed the culture we are now determined to change.”