UK women's rights campaigners have called for an end of what they call the "aggressive pursuit" of women accused of making false rape allegations, claiming that Britain's unusually heavy-handed approach to such cases is harming efforts to prosecute sexual violence.
The NGO Women Against Rape (WAR) has documented the cases of 109 women who have been jailed over the past five years for making complaints of rape or sexual assault, though the group speculates that the number could be much higher. On Tuesday, it took its campaign to the British parliament, where it contended that many of these women were prosecuted after being coerced by police into retracting their allegations.
WAR campaigner Lisa Longstaff told VICE News that when a woman is raped, part of the calculation they make when deciding whether to report it is "will they be believed, will something about them go against them, like if they're young or if they've ever had any mental health problems… It's a scary step to take to go to the authorities and go forward to a case."
She added: "I think there's a really bad history in this country of women being disbelieved and having a motive of jealousy or being malicious or whatever… There are just a lot of myths thrown around about why women are unreliable witnesses, and they haven't properly stopped those kind of prejudices being used in court. The tradition still is for defense barristers to judge a woman's character. "
Longstaff suggested that often women are convicted for making false allegations not because they lied about being raped but because of a lack of evidence to support their claim. However that lack of evidence could be the fault of the police who investigated the case, she added.
In January 2009, Layla Ibrahim reported an alleged assault by two perpetrators. In June 2010, Ibrahim — then aged 22 — was convicted of perverting the course of justice, and sentenced to three years in prison. The prosecution claimed that she had faked her own injuries — a bleeding knee, a black eye, cut hair, injuries to the back of her head and breasts — though she had never identified her alleged attackers. Evidence presented against her included the claim that she had acted in a strange manner when first spoken to by police. Ibrahim was released in 2011, after serving 13 months in prison. She and her family still insist she was attacked, and note several police failures in the handling of DNA evidence that could have supported her claim, including the destruction of a male pubic hair found on her body in a forensics lab.
In April this year, 23-year-old Eleanor de Freitas — a Durham University student who suffered from bi-polar disorder — killed herself days before facing trial for perverting the course of justice. De Frietas left notes saying she had committed suicide because of her fear of giving evidence in court. The case was later taken up by the director of public prosecutions, who launched an inquiry into why the CPS had pressed charges despite being informed by police that there was no evidence de Freitas had fabricated her claim.
Longstaff said that one of the biggest practical issues is that women who do go forward with rape claims are not told when they move from being the victim to being under suspicion. "They assume they're victims, but actually evidence is being taken from them to use against them."
In 2013, a study by the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that between January 2011 and May 2012 that there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape, and 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape.
The CPS noted the damaging impact that a false allegation can have on the accused. "Reputations can be ruined and lives can be devastated as a result."
Lisa Avalos, a law professor at the University of Arkansas who attended the parliament on Tuesday, has been working with Women Against Rape to research how the UK's law in this area compares to that of other countries.
She told VICE News that the UK has one of the most aggressive ways of pursuing those they believe have fabricated their stories. There are dramatically fewer similar cases of false rape allegations prosecuted in the US, Avalos told VICE News, and those that are carry charges of as "false reporting" — resulting in a fine, community service, or probation — rather than "perverting the course of justice," a conviction which in the UK carries a maximum term of life in prison.
Avalos acknowledged that "there are false allegations of rape, like there are false allegations of any crime." However, she said these incidences are statistically very small. The focus on gender when assessing these statistics is also counter-productive, she added. "Men are more likely to be rape victims than victims of false allegations of rape."
She also noted that many of these cases involve allegations against unknown and unidentified strangers, meaning that damage to an individual's reputation is less likely than it may seem, and that the claim could not have been fabricated out of vindictiveness.
Furthermore, Avalos said that a man faced with a false rape accusation does have other remedies besides seeking the imprisonment of the women who made the allegation, particularly through filing a civil suit for defamation. "We should not look beyond the fact that he can resolve that situation in another way."
"A woman who has been raped doesn't have any other method of recourse."
The number of recorded rapes in England and Wales is currently at its highest level ever, with victims more "willing" to report the assaults, according to the British Home Office. There were 22,116 cases reported in the year between June 2013 and June 2014, a rise of 29 percent on the year before that. However the chance of a conviction remains slim: a recent report by The Independent found that just 28 percent of reported rapes were referred to the CPS in the year to March 2014 — the lowest proportion since the government began keeping records in 2007.
Ibrahim will be filing an appeal in the next few weeks. Though she has already served her time in prison, her lawyer — Nigel Richardson — told VICE News that it's incredibly important to her that her name is cleared.
"She's still very traumatized by what happened."
Richardson said that Ibrahim couldn't bring herself to attend WAR's campaign event on Tuesday at the House of Commons or to tell her story again.
He added that he doesn't think the argument is that a prosecution should never be brought, "but we bring too many of them against vulnerable people, we bring them against people who bring a case but quickly retract it, and we bring them against people in a serious way, rather than just (punishing them) for wasting police time."
_Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: _@sallyhayd