If you have been reading recent news reports you may well ask yourself: “Does the law favour the privileged and punish the victim?” Two cases of sexual assault, one in Qatar and another in America, which both took place in March this year, shed light on how legal systems across the world treat both perpetrator and victim.
A Dutch woman, who reported that she had been raped while travelling in Doha, will be sent back to Utrecht after being prosecuted for having illicit sex.
The 22-year-old woman, known only as Laura, said she had been drugged while in a high-end nightclub in Doha and woke up in an unfamiliar apartment, where she realised she had been raped. After reporting the rape, Laura was arrested by police for having sex out of wedlock, fined 750 euros and detained for three months. After receiving a one year suspended sentence, Laura has been allowed to return home to the Netherlands by deportation.
The man accused of her rape, Syrian national Omar Abdullah Al-Hasan, claimed the sex was consensual. He pleaded guilty to charges of illicit consensual sex and being drunk in public, and will receive 140 lashes as punishment.
Meanwhile, former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner has been making headlines this past week for raping a 23-year-old woman behind a garbage bin while she was unconscious. Turner, 20, was last week convicted and given a six-month jail sentence. The leniency was allegedly granted in recognition of Turner’s previous good character and the fact that he was a talented swimmer.
Despite expectations that Turner will only have to carry out half of his sentence, his mother, Carleen Turner appealed his incarceration, writing to Judge Aaron Persky, “I beg of you, please don’t send him to jail/prison. Look at him. He won’t survive it. He will be damaged forever and I fear he would be a major target. Stanford boy, college kid, college-athlete — all the publicity. This would be a death sentence for him.”
Turner’s father, Dan Turner was criticised for defending his son’s actions, saying he should not go to jail for “20 minutes of action”.
Judge Persky, who handed down the sentence, was convinced by a character reference written by Turner’s classmate, Leslie Rasmussen. In the reference, Rasmussen says, “If I had to choose one kid I graduated with to be in the position Brock is, it would never have been him.”
Rasmussen has since apologised for the letter, which was widely criticised for placing blame on the victim. “But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses aren’t always because people are rapists,” she wrote.
In addition to his sentence, Turner has been banned for life from USA Swimming, disqualifying him from competing in the Olympic trials.
How are these two legal systems different?
Qatar is governed by Islamic law, which forbids extra-marital sex, the consumption of alcohol and being drunk in a public place. It is easy for us in the west to decry Islamic law for being archaic and oppressive. Many of us have a particular vision of what life in an Islamic country would be like – and the western media does an excellent job of fuelling this vision.
However, Laura’s case of having her drink spiked, being raped, then being blamed for her own attack, certainly isn’t a narrative that is unique to Middle Eastern countries. It’s the exact same narrative we see in so many western sexual assault cases. All too often, the victim is blamed for making mistakes; stepping out of line; drinking too much; wearing the wrong thing. Meanwhile, perpetrators (who should have ‘bright futures’), want forgiveness for their ‘mistakes’.
Brock Turner’s case ignited a furore across the world due to the disproportionate lightness of the sentence compared with the crime. People took to social media, protested at the university, wrote news articles and signed petitions.
This lenient sentence is a familiar story: educated, white Stanford University student, champion swimmer, from a stable family with his future cut short. So much potential, so much life ahead of him – how can all that be washed away by, as his father puts it, “20 minutes of action”?
What if Turner’s skin wasn’t white? What if his parents hadn’t been able to afford the US$150,000 bail or hire a defense team that litigated and mitigated at the same time, securing a win at sentencing? What if Leslie Rasmussen’s letter (Turner’s friend) hadn’t swayed Judge Aaron Persky? What if the judge hadn’t been a Stanford graduate?
As westerners, it’s easy for us to point fingers at a culture that we believe has an unjust approach to dealing with crime. It’s more difficult to look in our own backyard and be able to admit that we also have a justice problem. It’s just so entrenched in our culture that we very often fail to recognise it.
What is it they say about privilege? It’s invisible only to those who don’t have it.
What do you think of the western legal system in comparison to that of other parts of the world? Are perpetrators who are born into privilege given more leniency than those who are less advantaged? If you’ve been following the Brock Turner case, do you think he received a just sentence?
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