By Anna Louie Sussman
Monday, October 20, 2008
England's conviction rates for rapists have dropped to less than 6 percent from 30 percent three decades ago. Anti-violence activists mounted a pressure campaign against officials, even staging a mock trial to charge them with neglect.
LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)--Ruth Hall, a founding member of the activist group Women Against Rape, has joined the chorus of people emitting a collective groan over recent remarks made by British actress Dame Helen Mirren.
In an interview in October's British GQ magazine, the movie star best known for her TV portrayal of a dogged police detective in the "Prime Suspect" series suggested that women who engage in sexual activity with men, but who refuse sexual intercourse, should not expect to be able to bring a court case if their refusal is ignored. In the interview Mirren said she had been date-raped when she was younger but did not contact the police.
"You couldn't do that in those days," she said. "It's such a tricky area, isn't it? Especially if there is no violence. I mean, look at Mike Tyson. I don't think he was a rapist."
Tyson, the U.S. boxer, served three years in prison after he was convicted of raping an acquaintance.
"Clearly, the message is that women are partly to blame for rape and that the criminal justice system is not really on our side," says Hall, whose group has been working to help rape victims since 1976.
The group, known as WAR, staged a mock tribunal earlier this year in a small church in Camden Town, putting members of England's criminal justice system and prosecutors on trial. Survivors, along with relatives and friends, stood up one after the other to offer three hours of grueling, emotionally charged testimony, the only respite a brief tea and coffee break where homemade cakes were sold to help cover the cost of the event.
Activists dressed in the distinctive black robes and white powdered wigs worn by British judges. The accused in the mock trial were familiar names from the top tiers of the national government, including Solicitor General Vera Baird, even though in September she also condemned Mirren's remarks as "dangerous" to efforts to improve rape conviction rates.
The mock charges ranged from criminal negligence to sexual and racial discrimination to perverting the course of justice. And the mock judges delivered an unsurprising verdict: guilty as charged.
Hall and other activists were particularly sensitive to the Mirren interview because its publication followed the revelation in mid-August that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which awards damages to crime victims as a matter of common law, had reduced awards to 14 female rape victims in the past year because they had consumed alcohol before they were attacked. The average compensation is about $19,000.
Rape conviction rates in the United Kingdom are at a nearly historic low, hovering under 6 percent for all reported rapes, according to a January 2007 Home Office report. During the 1970s convictions were around 30 percent, according to figures cited by the London-based Fawcett Society, a leading women's rights organization.
Improper police decisions to record rape reports as "no crime" because a victim "lacked credibility" was among the reasons cited for low conviction rates in Britain. Alcohol consumption was also named a culprit.
The average number of rapes reported increased over 40 percent from 2001 to 2005, according to the Home Office report. But as more women have reported rape Hall says the criminal justice system and victim support services have "shut the door in these women's faces."
Sally Freeman, a witness at the mock trial, offers her own experience as an example.
Freeman says her 15-year-old daughter was raped in London by a neighbor in January 2005, but the police bungled what in her opinion should have been a clear-cut case.
They took three months to arrest the perpetrator even though she provided his name, address, phone number and license plate number, she said. "They didn't take forensics from anywhere in the house."
Although the neighbor phoned the girl to meet up the day after he met her, and also phoned her the day following the attack, he denied having met her or contacting her by phone. Freeman and her daughter handed her phone to the police the day they reported the rape, and police took the accused man's phone as well.
With this evidence, Freeman said, "We were so confident we were going to win."
Instead, they found out during the judge's summary that the evidence had been lost by the police.
Freeman said the judge also instructed the jury to disregard her daughter's age, as well as testimony from the accused's girlfriend, who said he left the house the night that Freeman alleges he threatened to throw acid in her daughter's face if she took the case to court. By his account, he spent that night at home.
The accused man was cleared, and still lives in the neighborhood, says Freeman, about five minutes' walk away. Women Against Rape helped her get a written apology from the police, but the man cannot be taken back to court.
Women Against Rape and other London-based groups--including Black Women's Rape Action Project, Legal Action for Women and the English Collective of Prostitutes--have complained to authorities about indifferent police response to sex assault.
Hall called for disciplinary action against "professionals who are not doing their jobs" in an open letter to the solicitor general published on the London Times' Web site in February 2008.
Since the revelations of discriminatory reduced payouts, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has admitted that the policy it relies on to determine financial awards to victims was not implemented correctly.
"A victim of rape should not have any compensation reduced because of their drinking," Justice Minister Bridget Prentice told the Guardian newspaper. She encouraged the compensation authority to re-examine other cases where the policy was wrongly applied.
But the compensation authority, a state-funded body, released a statement in August that it would not automatically review these cases, which made up 1 percent of payouts in 2007, because there is no mechanism in place to do so.
Women who have accepted a reduced award will not be able to appeal the decisions, the authority said.
Women Against Rape has taken on some of these cases on an individual basis. But that's a costly struggle that is draining to victims, Hall said.
"Instead of putting this burden on the victim, we want a blanket change."
Anna Louie Sussman is a Beirut-based journalist and editor of the arts and culture section of The Daily Star. She recently completed her master's in human rights at the London School of Economics.
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