House of Commons event "Jail rapists not rape victims",  2 December 2014

Women and families affected by biased rape investigations were joined by supporters in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2nd December to discuss the campaign, led by Women Against Rape (WAR) and Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), against the prosecution and imprisonment of rape survivors.

Hosted by John McDonnell MP, the event – Jail Rapists not Rape Victims – focused on the perverse and harrowing injustices women who report sexual violence are subjected to by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

An estimated 85,000 women are raped [1] in England and Wales each year; 90% of reported rape and domestic violence goes unprosecuted. Despite such an appalling record on achieving justice for victims, the legal system has managed to prosecute 109 women for false rape allegations in the past five years. The vast majority of these women are charged with ‘perverting the course of justice’, an offence that carries a maximum life sentence.

As immigration and detention practices grow increasingly severe, and shelters, legal aid, social housing, childcare and income support are restricted and shut down, women are left with few routes to escape sexual and domestic violence. To compound this with the threat of imprisonment and/or the removal of children if women are accused of lying or of being unable to protect their children, effectively leaves women trapped, and allows rapists and other abusers to continue with impunity.

BWRAP and WAR have been challenging this practice for the past seven years, and the evening threw light on the injustices they have uncovered through their campaign. They also mentioned women unable to be with us that evening due to incarceration or, as in the case of Eleanor de Freitas, suicide.

Attendees heard some of the survivors’ stories firsthand. Sandra Allen talked us through the ordeal her daughter, Layla Ibrahim, has faced since she was attacked in 2009. Layla served three years in prison after she reported having been violently attacked by two strangers while on her way home after a night out. Sandra traced how the police’s initial appearance of concern twisted into an investigation of Layla, rather than of her attackers: family members were contacted and told that the police suspected that Layla had inflicted her own injuries, suspects that fitted Layla’s description of the men were not pursued, forensic evidence that supported her story was lost or destroyed. Layla was pressured to drop the charges and told that if she did so she would ‘be dragged through the papers, but not through the courts’. She refused to “confess” to something she hadn’t done. After she served her sentence, one of her suspected attackers was found guilty of raping another woman using similar techniques he had used on Layla.

An appeal against Layla’s conviction is going to the Criminal Cases Review Commission this month. Sandra Allen called for the public to support her daughter’s application so the investigation into the original rape can be reopened and Layla’s name cleared.

Hamish McKenna, whose partner Rhiannon Brooker is serving a three and a half year sentence after reporting rape and domestic violence in a previous relationship, told a similar story. Rhiannon’s decision to speak out was met with persistent mistrust, perverse logic and threats from the police. Her family and friends were investigated; Hamish himself was threatened with being charged for perverting the course of justice should he give evidence in support of Rhiannon. The police even contacted social services in a bid to remove Rhiannon and Hamish’s child, who was still breastfeeding at the time – fortunately social workers saw what a loving family they are.

For Gail Sherwood, a mother of three, reporting her longtime stalker and rapist was met with laughter and suspicion. Gail was placed under surveillance, accused of planning elaborate false attacks on herself, and eventually sent to prison for two years. Whilst serving her sentence, her stalker continued to contact her in prison and since her release he has attacked her again.

We also heard from Verna Joseph, a St Lucian woman trafficked to the UK by a gang who had raped her and forced her to carry drugs into the UK. Despite an expert report submitted to the British court confirming that she had been raped and beaten by the gang and the St Lucia police telling the court that they could not protect her, Verna was sentenced to nine years in prison.

After serving five, she was released and claimed asylum, only to have her claim refused and be sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. There, on hunger strike protesting racist and sexist abuse from guards and terrible conditions, Verna battled with a series of appeals – she eventually won her release and asylum along with 22 other women from Yarl’s Wood.

Verna has since been raped again whilst staying at a women’s hostel. The man was arrested and put on trial. But during his trial, his only witness was permitted to sit in court while others gave evidence so she could tailor her evidence to discredit Verna’s story. The man was released, and Verna denied justice once again.

A further harrowing account was given by a young woman from Rotherham, who as a teenager had been taken into care and placed with her paedophile uncle. She had never spoken in public before and everyone was moved to tears.

Looking further afield, Professor Lisa Avalos compared how different countries deal with rape. She found that police disbelief, shaming and suspicion toward rape survivors is also common in other Western countries, but that the UK is exceptional in its draconian prosecution policy. She has ‘not found any country that pursues these cases against women rape complainants in the way the UK does. The UK has an unusual approach and I think that approach violates human rights’.

Nigel Richardson, Layla’s and Rhiannon’s solicitor, commented that he had not seen the police investigate any other crime with the dogged, vindictive enthusiasm with which they pursue suspected false rape allegations: digging into women’s pasts to pin stains on their character, threatening friends and family members and concocting elaborate stories in which women violently attacked themselves.

The speakers told us their stories with palpable courage, struggling through the pain of their memories and the indignities they had been forced to suffer to have their truths heard. We were reminded that these cases perpetuate trauma for victims of sexual violence, dragging their experiences long into the future as they suffer the injustices that accompany a criminal record and the pain of not being believed or achieving justice. Amongst speakers and the audience, who often gasped in shock and fury at the details of these women’s stories, there was an atmosphere of care, solidarity and a resolution to move forward. Our host, John McDonnell MP, pledged his ongoing support to the campaign.

The discussion unfolded a commitment to stop these practices, and to connect this struggle to others: one person reminded us of institutionalised abuse of disabled people that went unaddressed; another of police and politicians’ negligence and complicity in widespread child abuse in Rotherham and elsewhere; the galling hypocrisy of police that claim to have neglected rape investigations out of fear of being called racist when they continue to harass, criminalise and sometimes kill people of colour was highlighted; sex workers complained about police turning out en masse to dispossess them in Soho under the guise of tackling sex trafficking while refusing to investigate attacks against them.

As Verna Joseph concluded for us: ‘Everywhere our stories of survival are coming out. We won’t be silenced. We’ll keep on fighting and we will have justice in the end, all of us.’

Help us win justice for rape survivors. Support the campaign to clear Layla Ibrahim’s name.

[1] 2013 Rape Crisis – http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/mythsandfacts2.php