The public prosecutor in Ghent is to appeal the sentence handed down on two young men found guilty of raping a woman, but then allowed to walk free from court without serving any time in prison.
The two, both aged 19 at the time of the crime, were found guilty and sentenced to 16 and 20 months. But the sentence was suspended, meaning they were free to go.
The sentence caused immediate and widespread outrage on social and other media. One editorialist, writing in de Morgen, asked, “When a rape has been filmed and the perpetrators are in fact just going free, we wonder: who then is being punished for sexual assault?”
The evidence in the case was incontestable. The woman, a fellow student, was followed into the toilets by one of the men, who proceeded to rape her and film the act on his phone. The second accused followed him and raped the woman again. Meanwhile the first man showed his friends the video he had made.
“Our mailbox has been inundated with messages from victims who are sickened by what happened,” write Sophie Van Reeth, who runs an advice and information centre on inappropriate sexual behaviour.
“People feel helpless. They are not only disappointed on a legal level, but also see how social violence is dealt with from a social point of view.”
Writing on International Women’s Day on Monday, journalist Cathy Galle described how progress had seemed to have been made in recent times, with the #MeToo movement and successful prosecutions of prominent figures.
“But a verdict like the one in Ghent brings us crashing back to earth,” she wrote.
“It catapults us back in time. Because what good are all these efforts if some apparently still do not realise that there are no excuses for ‘devious rape’ [rape without physical resistance]. The victims of sexual assault deserve better.”
According to Liesbet Stevens, professor of sexual criminal law and deputy director of the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men, such cases are more common in student cities than most of us would imagine.
“The image of the predator jumping out of the bushes to brutally rape someone is a myth,” she told De Standaard.
“In reality, sex offences are much more often about people in a ‘domestic’ atmosphere. Perpetrators of sexual violence are often known to the victim. Until recently, once alcohol was involved, cases were almost always automatically dropped.”
One positive aspect of the Ghent case, she said, was that it came to a court case at all.
“Magistrates are learning more about the context of sexual violence, but stereotypes about victims and perpetrators sometimes still creep into the assessment. The fact that this case was considered important enough to be thoroughly investigated, and that a conviction followed in principle is already a step forward,” she said.
The Ghent prosecutor’s office declines to comment on the case, and Professor Stevens also would not discuss the details. But she did suggest what the result of an appeal of the sentence might look like.
“Until now, only prison sentences have existed in sexual criminal law,” she said. “Perpetrators would benefit from being confronted with their actions for longer. Let them obtain guidance for as long as necessary to gain insight into their guilt, and in addition to a classic punishment, also impose voluntary work on them or make them contribute to a victim fund for a long time. It should not be too casual, but it is a kind of penance that can benefit society, as well as the perpetrator.”