The war that keeps on raping: Femicide and sexual violence in post-conflict Cyprus
The dispute of women’s right to self-determination, on part of the church and various neoconservative and extreme para-religious organisations, to which the state has recently lent a friendly ear, have a long history in the country. The aim of these sexist, misogynic and obscurantist political interventions is not only the undermining of women’s rights and of any modernizing attempt to integrate sexual education in schools, but also the overall control of sexual behaviour and most of all of young people, through systematic attacks to contraception, the freedom of choice and the free expression of sexuality. The attempt to incriminate women who choose abortion implies total indifference for women’s health and the duty of the state to ensure safe abortions, intersects with dominant patriarchal discourses about the demographic issue and low birth rates and disregards laws and international treaties in effect defining women’s sexual and reproductive rights as legally vested and internationally recognised human rights.
In April 2019 the bodies of five women and two girls were discovered around Nicosia district, all victims of the same man, an officer in the Cypriot army. On 24 June 2019, he was handed seven life sentences, five of them consecutive. Less than a month later, district police in Ayia Napa were investigating a gang rape, which was eventually dismissed and exchanged for accusations against the victim for false allegations. Before the year was out, she was convicted of this charge of ‘public harm’ and handed a suspended jail sentence.
The two cases have received ample public attention in Cyprus and internationally, not only for the brutality of the crimes committed and the failures of process they exposed (of the police investigation in both cases and of the judicial one in the second), but also because they mainly involved foreign nationals. In these international debates, the failures of the Cypriot authorities to protect women from sexual and lethal violence were repeatedly, extensively, and convincingly argued. The mobilization of feminist and rights groups has at the same time provided indications of how alliances can be brought together across countries and bolster a growing feminist movement on the island that spans diverse agendas. Both cases are now developing on a different plane, of seeking reparations from government authorities from the glaring mishandling involved.
Yet for all the attention the various aspects of these cases have received, there is one that has been consistently ignored and which I want to comment on here: the fact that these crimes took place in a post-conflict environment. This entails a historical legacy of ethnic violence and societal militarization pitting Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities against each other since at least the 1950s; a geographical division of the island between Greek- and Turkish- administered regions that solidified with the war of 1974; a legal system based on a power-sharing constitution that has been suspended in large part since 1963; and a process of political negotiation facilitated by the UN for the last five decades (the ramifications of all these in daily life have been explored elsewhere [Demetriou, 2018]). In the case of the first crime, this was important because a fundamental assumption behind the failure to investigate the disappearances was that the victims were probably living in the north, having fled domestic and labour conditions in the south. And in the case of the second, the involvement of officials from Israel (from where those accused of the rape hailed) in backdoor negotiations (conducted on a background of complex regional politics affecting the Cyprus conflict and its negotiation), although never openly articulated, is widely believed to have contributed to the turning of the charges.
The line not crossed
Following the discovery of two women’s bodies in a shaft of a copper mine on mid-April, the man arrested confessed to no less than seven murders, of five young women, two alongside their daughters. All were foreign: four were Filipina (including a 6-year old), two Romanian (including an 8-year old) and one Nepalese. The bodies had been disposed of in different locations in the wider area around the mine, including in a refuse pond, an army shooting ground, and a lake. It took two months for all the bodies to be recovered, two months in which news reporting was constant and covered every aspect of the investigation, from the details of equipment used, to the timings of dives in the toxic water and the scheduling of police statements.
In these two months, the voices and visibility of women from the Filipino community and organisations for the rights of domestic workers in Cyprus became momentarily stronger, even if muffled. Vigils held in Nicosia’s public park were reported after the event, silent protests outside the presidential palace likewise. For all the public statements of shock, horror, and cries for the need to investigate, provide justice, and assume responsibility for previous investigative failure, no public apology was offered to the community as a whole of female migrant workers whose socially embedded structural precarity has put them in harm’s way. There have been apologies, by the President, Chief of Police and Minister of Justice, the last two of whom resigned, but these were to the families of the victims. They were apologies accompanied by emphatic declarations that the remains would be repatriated at public expense, as if this was not to be expected. And they came without further firm commitments of community-focused actions. An office set up to examine complaints related to domestic work conditions is yet to publicly announce any findings. Long-standing complaints about such conditions include failure to monitor adherence to work hours, employers’ intrusion into workers’ private lives, demands for unpaid work, sexual and physical assault, prohibition of unionization, favorable treatment of employers in contracts (these have been noted repeatedly over the years by the NGO KISA, www.kisa.org.cy). But more worryingly, the establishment of the office for investigating complaints was announced alongside concerns about the ‘obligations’ of domestic workers. Reportedly, fearful women had left their places of employment in the aftermath of the murders and the President made statements warning them that doing was forsaking their obligations (Omega news, 3/5/19). In other words, the rights of employers, even at this tragic moment, were reaffirmed and placed alongside if not above, those of foreign female care workers. And on another occasion, rightly criticized for its racist undertones, the President pointed out that the apologies carried special weight for having been offered “even though the victims were foreigners” (Politis, 4/5/19).
The scandalous question here, of course, is why authorities did not investigate the disappearances of these women and girls, which had been reported immediately by families, friends, employers, and on at least one occasion, journalists. In all the cases, the disappearances had not been registered as suspicious and filed as cases of a ‘non-police nature’; investigating police officers had assumed the women had fled employers or ex-husbands and crossed to the northern part of the island, outside the control of the Republic of Cyprus police. And they insisted on this assumption even when presented with evidence that contradicted it: bank accounts intact, travel documents left behind, food in the fridge, needed medication in kitchen drawers. The assumption of flight to the north for the first two victims had costed five more lives.
And yet, when the police were asked to comment on the likelihood that a body of a Nepalese woman discovered dumped in roadside fields in the north might have been the victim of the same man, they immediately insisted that this was unlikely. And when evidence reportedly confirmed that he could not have committed that murder, further investigation of other possible links or even information or expertise sharing that might help solve that crime, remained firmly out of the purview of possible coordinated action. Even though no hard evidence exists at present to link murders across the line, my point is that given the long lists of missing persons from the last few years that exist on both sides, this case might have given pause to rethink investigative collaboration.
The assumptions that foreclose such thinking stem from an ingrained approach to the political condition that plagues the island for decades now, whereby a line of division separates a political entity that belongs to the UN system and the European Union (the Republic of Cyprus), but another remains self-administered by Turkish-Cypriot authorities, and without official contact with the first or international bodies. It is an approach that says that contact with authorities in the north risks undermining the sovereignty of the Republic. In the choice between sovereignty and investigation, it is sovereignty that wins. But femicide happens in the meantime. The refusal to look across the other side kills people.
A bicommunal technical committee on criminal matters, which is tasked with facilitating contact between police administrations in an indirect way and without risking sovereignty capital had not intervened in these disappearances beyond establishing that the women had not left Cyprus. And a committee on gender equality, of which I am a member, has no lobbying, and even less an executive, mandate. The argument is not that if contact existed these crimes would be solved. It is that some of them might have been prevented. Because, ultimately, the filing of the cases as of a non-suspicious nature arises from two equally repugnant truths about institutional racism in Cyprus: one is that female migrant workers are often abused and exploited and often have good reason to flee their employers and escape to a territory where they know authorities will not look for them to deport them. The second is that the bodies and lives of female migrant workers are considered expendable within a system that allows abuse and exploitation to go unpunished, through laws that nearly always favour the employer. It is in recognition of these two phenomena that police assumed there was nothing to investigate; and in these interstices that seven women disappeared.
In such interstices between sovereignty and daily life, social complacency reigns in Cyprus. The investigating officers who dismissed the cases have been castigated in mainstream and social media for failing in their jobs and for racial bias in considering Filipina women not worthy of their time. It could well be so. The fact that the employer of the first victim to be discovered was a high-ranking female officer in the police was only briefly mentioned and only in the first few days. One may wonder about the nature of domestic work relations in the face of such complacency. But it may also be the case that investigating officers had as an easy task deciding to drop the cases for the political and technical issues they posed as they had an easy conscience that the disappeared women were safe and sound and free in the north, and perhaps better off than in the south.
My point here is that the failures in this horrific case of serial femicide are systemic and institutional and bespeak of the racist, nationalist, and patriarchal notions that underlie state structures (a point made by many women’s organisations on the island already). But they are equally societal failures that show the extent to which Cypriots have learnt to live with these notions and accommodate their existence even if they do not agree with them. The spectre of days when social norms allowed complacency over people’s disappearances lingers in the memory of interethnic paramilitary killings, the results of which are still being unearthed five decades later. Public discussions have shirked from this symbolic connection to the disappearances of the 1960s, when Turkish-Cypriots (mainly) were abducted and killed by Greek-Cypriot paramilitaries, during what remains one of the most difficult aspects to articulate in Cypriot conflict history. Then, as now, authorities did not investigate promptly. Then, as now, the victims were not Greek-Cypriots. But contrary to the 1960s, the contemporary Greek-Cypriot polity is a democratic, liberal, European state, with institutions that are developed well past their conflict origins. Failure to investigate today is not due to the chaos of conflict and the fracture of authority, even though the legacy of militarization played a role; and thus it becomes crucial to disconnect this one unfortunate and mishandled case from the post-conflict environment that informed the assumptions that delayed investigations in the first place. The killer’s military background, as an officer in the National Guard, is incessantly mentioned to the point that the National Guard issued a complaint against the media for stigmatizing their profession. Yet it is reported that it was often in military uniform that the killer approached his victims. And it was largely his military capacity that was so shocking when the violence he inflicted was made known. By comparison, his photography background, which allowed him to also approach victims as a conduit for modeling aspirations, has elicited media comments but not complaints from photographers’ associations. He was a seemingly ‘perfectly nice person’ first and foremost as a military man. And this to me is telling of a militarist mindset that is a social and not only an institutional phenomenon. The legacy of those earlier disappearances from decades ago is traceable in today’s serial femicides.
A long and violent coast
If Mitsero signifies the nowhere location of a mine now connected with death a and gendered abjection, Ayia Napa is a designation that does the opposite: semiotically much larger than the territorial limits of a small coastal municipality, it stands for a global everywhere of summertime excess, where sexual violence is routinely excused, at least until now. Belying this generic association, its development into the (dis)reputable holiday destination is the result of very specific geo-political arrangements following war. Ayia Napa is arguably a post-conflict resort because it claims the remainder of the long Famagusta coast, which was a budding cosmopolitan beach attraction in the 1960s and 1970s, before it was occupied by the Turkish military in 1974. Now left to ruin and infamously fenced off as a ‘ghost town’, the Varosha beach can only be glimpsed from Ayia Napa at the far side of the same bay as a distant marker of a different order of violence.
The tourist industry developed in the Ayia Napa area since 1974 has slowly grown to rely heavily on rites-of-passage tourism. And it does so in competition to the northern part of the coast, on the other side of the conflict line. This includes weddings and attendant pre-nuptial parties, local and international teenage holidays abroad prior to university entry. Liminalities structure and literally feed the city’s economy, from architectural excesses in hotels and clubs, to multiple practices of circumventing national law, most famously through party boats travelling into international waters and back. Policing these international waters is especially tricky because it potentially involves multiple authorities differently contesting the area (Greek-Cypriot, Turkish, UN, British bases). On land, limitations in policing practices are not simply taken for granted in this location, they are folded into its economy (which competes with the north on the one hand but also complements other destinations in the south considered more family-friendly). A company advertising trips in 2020 used the thrill of fake policing as an enticing feature of the cruises: “Watch out for Constable Cruise, Ayia Napa’s corrupt Policeman will be onboard to stamp out all inhibitions!!!” (http://www.fantasyboatparty.com, 16/2/2020). Ayia Napa was the scene of a mafia execution in 2016, where the four victims included the businessman targeted, a police officer he was meeting, and the contract killer (an attempt which followed two others in 2014 and 2012).
But as much as these liminalities challenge and undermine policing practices, they also enfold an aspect of militarization that is often ignored. One significant rite of passage that Ayia Napa also caters for is the offer of a summer of fun before Greek-Cypriot men’s compulsory army conscription at the end of high school. This, recent events have revealed, also holds for Israeli men. Similarly, Ayia Napa is also a destination for soldiers taking leave in Cyprus from other conflicts. Cyprus is here a post-conflict location not only in relation to its own local conflict, but also in a global sense, through the sheer fact of being a region at the crossroads between conflict hotspots in the global east and south and the western countries from where intervention originates. And it is also a spot that due to its own conflict legacy has established infrastructures in the form of a UN peacekeeping contingent and British military bases that offer facilities catering for what could be called ‘de-compression’ tours. This militarization of the entertainment that Ayia Napa offers was noticed by local authorities back in 2008, when they put the town off limits to British soldiers following serious incidents of physical violence (Smith, 2008).
And so it was in these interstices in July 2019, that a visiting woman was raped following an intoxicated night out, by multiple men who were alleged to have planned the attack with her boyfriend. She was from the UK, casually working at a club and heading to university, they from Israel, holidaying as a group and at least some heading to the army. Following an initial mass arrest, media uproar in the three countries, and the involvement of diplomatic authorities on the island, some of those arrested were released within the week. The accuser was called back to testify a second time 10 days later, and was questioned through the night. In the early hours of the next morning, she retracted her original statement. The rest of those arrested were subsequently released and she was charged with making a false allegation, kept in custody, then released on bail until the end of year when the case was heard in the local court and she was convicted to a four-month suspended sentence.
The court case has been widely decried by women’s groups in Cyprus, Israel, the UK and beyond, and concerns have been raised by the UK government and the House of Lords about miscarriage of justice. Indeed, to begin with, the court took her retraction at face value, and the police dismissed the initial claim. Asked about how the retraction was evaluated, the investigating officer insisted than once the allegations were withdrawn, the case ceased to exist, and therefore “there was no retraction” to evaluate (Famagusta district court, 2019, p. 14). Even so, parts of the lengthy decision deal with the grounds for rejecting her first statement and concluding that she had lied. The point is made, for example, that details of her statements differed, and that she was unable to account fully for these differences (e.g. how many perpetrators there were, after she had said that she was unable to see and follow what was happening, having been held down by force and earlier gone out drinking). Forensic failures pointed out by an expert on her defence team were dismissed as sided without delving into the issues they raised. Complaints about translation and legal representation during the second testimony were similarly dismissed as baseless. The reading of the decision gives no hint that the laws being applied comply with the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that Cyprus has proudly signed (2015) and ratified (2018), or with domestic consent-based rape legislation that categorises Cyprus as one of only 8 progressive European countries to have it (Amnesty International, 2019). It is a decision that instead contains graphic descriptions, misogynist quotes of expert witnesses that go unnoticed and insulting references to L (unnamed in decision text) by both judge and witnesses.
The question that has arisen for most women’s groups was about the patriarchal and backward character of Cypriot society, the relative silence of feminist activists up to now (indeed their audible presence in this trial was praised), and the lack of expertise and training of police and judicial authorities. While these assessments are well deserved, I want to suggest that there are multiple political questions at stake here that compound this situation in particular. It is not only that police authorities lack training. Given that other cases of rape allegations by foreign women in Ayia Napa have in previous years also been dismissed and retracted, it could be suggested that police is not untrained but in fact trained in following a particular process in the investigation of rape. Note that police statistics reporting serious crime (including rape) count reports and investigations, not convictions (police.gov.cy). And that between 2010 and 2017 when rape statistics are available, reports of rape fell by almost half (36 to 19). A question could be posed as to whether ineffective processes are already deterring victims –or indeed, if the goal of an in fact effective process is to deter victims.
So if a culture of normalising sexual crime pre-existed the rape of 2019, this became even more entrenched as it intersected with ideas about what politics should be prioritised and what not. In discussions of the international relations aspects of this case, it has been suggested that ongoing negotiations over an Israel-Greece-Cyprus deal regarding a gas pipeline under the sea have played a role in the refusal of the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus to take a stance on the case (McShane, 2020). Gas politics are at the moment the top concern of the Cypriot foreign ministry, being intimately linked to the dispute with Turkey, which also claims (so far unsuccessfully) drilling rights. The deal was signed on 3 January, a few days after the court decision and a few prior to the sentencing. Greek and Cypriot government officials have refused commenting on the case citing the independence of the judiciary. But Israeli government members have declared connections to the families of some of the men (Daily Mail, 2020; New Statesman, 2020). Between two countries (Cyprus and Israel) where national politics of conflict have always come before gender politics, it is now evident that the detrimental effect of this deprioritisation is very specific: the thwarting of prosecutions of high-standing men.
The war on women
As at February 2020, the FCO highlights rape and sexual assault in its travel advice to Cyprus, referencing spiked drinks and alcohol content. What it fails to mention is work precarities that harm foreign women in Cyprus because the care and entertainment professions (linked as they are to the local conflict and global politics as Agathangelou  showed long ago) continue to be normalised as ‘high risk’. The cases of 2019 have brought to the fore how detrimental these precarities remain to women’s lives in Cyprus.
And so, if this is a point to pause and rethink those racist, patriarchal, militarist, and nationalist structures that enabled these crimes, the task at hand is both institutional and social. As bodies were still being discovered in the refuse lakes of Mitsero back in April, female Filipina and other migrants, began to gain a voice. They held vigils and silent protests that are increasingly, and finally, being noticed in mainstream media. They were attracting apologies, of sorts, for the racism that their community is suffering from. Potential victims and survivors were reporting to the police and being heard. Likewise in December and January, as the trial was being heard, women gathered from Israel, the UK, and Cyprus to protest, shout, and boycott the structures that enabled an accuser to become the accused. By then, the earlier spade of murders had faded from public discussion and as new, more western alliances were being forged.
Much as the crimes are a reminder of the long shadow of conflict and militarism that continues to inconspicuously rape and murder, they are also a reminder of the alliances that are necessary to forge and necessary to maintain. Cypriot, Israeli, British, Filipina, Romanian, Nepalese, migrant, and other feminists should continue to stand together with a precariat that has thus far been biopolitically disposable and unmourned. In this moment, for as brief as it will be, allegiances can be forged to target the labour system (and the laws on domestic work), the policing of gender violence (and the punishment of rape and harassment), as well as the blindspots of the political conflict (and the refusal to look across the Green Line), and the racial stratification of Cypriot society (and the inhibitions lurking in the solidarities between locals and others).
On this last point, it is worth recalling that the two victims that were killed alongside their daughters were the mothers of children born in Cyprus: i.e. they had lived in Cyprus for over six and eight years respectively. And yet, in a system that naturalizes citizens by exception rather than by rule, these women, in death as in life, were depicted as others –Filipino and Romanian respectively, never as integrated members of Cypriot society and with a probably rightful claim to citizenship that they perhaps never pursued (and which might have upgraded the investigation of their whereabouts to a matter of ‘police nature’). It is this hard line that also framed L’s mediatic presentation as first and foremost a ‘British tourist’ before being a person with rights. If Mitsero and Ayia Napa are codes, they are codes of the horror not only of serial femicide and gang rape but of the silences that fester and give rise to them. And of the speaking out that needs to happen as the scene is being cleared. That speaking out has to also detangle the legacies in which these silences are imbricated.
Agathangelou, A. (2004). The Global Political Economy of Sex. London: Palgrave.
Amnesty International, (2019). Right to be Free from Rape: Overview of Legislation and State of Play in Europe and International Human Rights Standards, Amnesty International, Index No: EUR 01/9452/2018, p. 9.
Demetriou, O. (2018). Refugeehood and the Postconflict Subject: Reconsidering Minor Losses. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Inderdeep Bains in Cyprus for the Daily Mail, (2020, January 2). The 12 alleged attackers with friends in high places: How arrest of Israeli youths over British woman’s gang rape accusation in Ayia Napa was followed closely back home. Mail Online, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7843705/British-womans-gang-rape-closely-followed-accused-Israeli-youths-family.html (last accessed 16/2/2020).
MacShane, D. (2020, January 17). There are dark geopolitical motives behind the Cyprus rape case. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/cyprus-gang-rape-israel-british-woman-eu-turkey-aiya-napa-gas-pipeline-a9286866.html (last accessed 11/4/2020).
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Smith, H. (2008, March 1). Ayia Napa bans British soldiers over bar brawls. The Guardian.
Olga Demetriou is a social anthropologist based at the Durham Global Security Institute at Durham University. She has been working on issues of conflict in relation to citizenship, gender, and rights for two decades, authoring Capricious Borders: Minority, Population and Counter-Conduct between Greece and Turkey (Berghahn, 2013/2017) and Refugeehood and the Post Conflict Subject: Reconsidering Minor Losses (SUNY Press, 2018).