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An Unbelievable Retraction In Cyprus

Protaras, Cyprus beach with tourists.
Cyprus. Photo by Glen Bowman.

In the Netflix series “Unbelievable,” a teenager is browbeaten by skeptical police into recanting her report of a brutal rape – and is then criminally charged with making a false report.

But as shown in the series, which is based on a true story, there really was a rape. That crime was the first in a series by the same assailant spanning several years and several states. Now, in a case of life imitating art that was imitating life, a similar prosecution is underway on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

There, a young British woman reported during the summer that she was gang-raped by a group of Israeli men. Cypriot police quickly arrested a dozen men, but almost as quickly released them after the complainant – 19 years old at the time – signed a statement recanting the charges. The woman was charged with filing a false complaint and is currently on trial in Cyprus. The formerly accused men are all back in Israel.

Police say the complainant wrote the statement recanting her original accusations. As reported by the BBC, she testified in October that the statement does not even make grammatical sense to an English speaker; she said it was dictated to her by the local police, who refused to let her see a lawyer.

Because she is confined to Cyprus, the young woman was unable to start her university studies this autumn. And while major news organizations (and this blog post) have refrained from identifying her, it is not difficult to find a name on the internet – along with a heap of abusive and irrelevant claims about her.

Cyprus has a broad and close economic relationship with Israel, which lies less than 300 miles away across the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The government in Nicosia has grown closer to Israel in recent years as the relations between Israel and Turkey, which has occupied the northern one-third of the island since 1974, have become increasingly strained. Israel and Cyprus signed a tourism promotion deal on Oct. 25. We can be forgiven if we suspect that the Cypriot attitude toward the complainant has been colored by the value it attaches to relations with its neighbor.

But it is just as likely that the Cypriot law enforcers are proceeding from the same intellectual starting point as the authorities in Lynnwood, Washington, did more than a decade ago when they received the rape claim from the woman identified in the Netflix drama as “Marie Adler.” (Her real name has never been disclosed; she went by Marie, her middle name, in the journalists’ account on which the dramatization was based.)

As reported in the original story, a collaboration between ProPublica and The Marshall Project, in 2008 Marie said that a man had entered her house while she was asleep. The man woke her and, at knifepoint, tied and gagged her. She reported that he raped her and left; she managed to cut herself free and called 911. Law enforcement officials, in part because of a tip from Marie’s former foster mother, treated her story with suspicion and focused on perceived inconsistencies in Marie’s account of the crime. Under ongoing pressure from detectives and the threat of losing her subsidized housing, Marie recanted her story. Lynnwood police then charged her with false reporting, a misdemeanor.

This outcome was not an outlier. ProPublica reported that in the five years between 2008 and 2012, Lynnwood police determined that 10 of the 47 rape reports in that Seattle suburb were unfounded. That rate was five times higher than the national rate of false reports for agencies covering similar-sized populations during the same period. One of the “unfounded” reports in Lynnwood was that of the woman known as Marie.

Quite possibly as a result of Lynnwood’s lethargic and misguided police response, Marie’s assailant went on to assault and traumatize more victims. Later investigation by detectives in Colorado identified a rapist with the same pattern Marie had described, operating across county and state lines. Because the attacker liked to take pictures of his victims, when the man was caught, Marie’s original story was confirmed. Her record was expunged and her court costs were refunded. She later filed a lawsuit against the city of Lynnwood, which the city settled for $150,000.

Did a university-bound British student fabricate a rape claim against a dozen foreign men while visiting a third country? We don’t know for certain, although we know that it doesn’t sound very likely. Had the authorities in Cyprus dropped the charges against the Israelis and let everyone get on with their lives, it might not have been justice, but it would not have drawn the entire world’s attention to the way this complainant was isolated and pressured. I would not be writing about it now and comparing it to the miscarriage of justice that a young woman in Washington state suffered more than a decade ago.

Let Cyprus have the tourist trade of rowdy gangs of men from around the Mediterranean, if that’s what it wants. Based on what is happening in that Cypriot courtroom, I wouldn’t take my family there. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my daughters travel there on their own – or yours, either.

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