Months after she filed a complaint of gang rape from a small 24-hour clinic in a Cyprus resort town, a British teen stood before a courtroom heaving with lawyers and journalists, facing a “public mischief” charge – a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $1,700.
Over 10 days in the summer of 2019, Emma (a pseudonym, as her name remains protected), went from being a rape complainant to a criminal defendant. She had reported being raped in a hotel room in Ayia Napa by a group of Israelis, including a young man she previously had consensual sex with. The police arrested 12 Israeli youths, ranging in age from 15 to 22, who either denied involvement or claimed everything that took place in the hotel room was consensual. Emma, they said, had lied about being raped.
Days later, confronted by police in a six-hour interrogation without legal counsel, Emma signed what she subsequently said was a coerced retraction. The statement said she had made up the rape allegations and had, in fact, willingly engaged in group sex but felt “humiliated” and “embarrassed” when she realized the youths were recording the acts.
Emma was promptly arrested, charged with making false allegations, and prosecuted in a case that would make headlines worldwide.
On January 31, more than two years after a judge convicted her and handed her a four-month suspended sentence, the Supreme Court of Cyprus overturned the ruling.
It was a dramatic outcome to a long-shot appeal, according to her lawyers, who had worked for months after her conviction to put together their case. They argued that Emma had not been given due process, that the presiding judge had been hostile to her from the outset, and that her claims of rape had not been properly investigated.
In interviews to The Times of Israel, the lawyers also described working amid a sea of misinformation — mainly in the Israeli press — that denigrated the complainant’s character, shamed her for perceived sexual promiscuity, and presented an inaccurate telling of events that influenced public opinion and even the behavior of the presiding judge. Had she not been acquitted by Cyprus’s top court, they were ready to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, if needed, to clear her name.
The Times of Israel also spoke to journalists, activists, and experts who criticized what they saw as a botched investigation followed by an unjust trial in which a British tourist who reported a gang rape then stood accused of a crime in a foreign country.
For many, Emma became a symbol of “rape culture” run amok, a young woman not only disbelieved but made into a criminal by a public out to defend the honor of its young men against a “loose” woman out to ruin their lives.
When her trial began in October 2019, Emma, then 19, had already spent nearly three months in Cyprus, including four weeks in a local jail and another month bouncing from one short-term rental apartment to another with her mother. She’d been barred from leaving the country as her family raised money in a crowdfunding campaign to pay for her legal defense.
An Israeli journalist present at the hearing that fall day described her to The Times of Israel as disoriented and overwhelmed as she scratched at the skin on her chest and arms, listening and responding through a translator to court proceedings in Cypriot Greek. That same journalist described the presiding judge as particularly dour and “aggressive,” often interrupting and shouting at Emma and her lawyers.
The demeanor of the judge, who lawyers said refused to consider evidence supporting Emma’s allegations and sought to stop any mention of rape, featured prominently in the appeal.
Two years later, in a ruling (Greek) handed down on January 31, 2022, the Supreme Court agreed with Emma’s lawyers that the trial process had been “manifestly unfair” and the judge’s “interruptions and interventions were unjustified and inadmissible.”
Standing outside the steps of the Supreme Court in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia two weeks ago, one of Emma’s lawyers called the decision a “watershed moment” for his client and for those who have found themselves in similar situations.
“Important fair trial provisions, which are put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice, were totally disregarded,” according to Michael Polak, one of Emma’s lawyers.
British barrister Michael Polak, who founded Justice Abroad three years ago to provide legal services to British nationals facing arrest or judicial proceedings in other countries, said in a video statement outside court that “important fair trial provisions, which are put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice, were totally disregarded” in the case, and a “young, vulnerable woman” was mistreated throughout the police investigation and the trial.
He called for her claims to be reinvestigated by different police. Calls have grown for the original rape case to be reopened, though the Israeli lawyer who represented several of the initial Israeli suspects insisted that the ruling exonerating Emma would not put his clients back in legal jeopardy.
For Emma, the ruling was the first glimmer of justice some three years after a youthful holiday fling turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The Ayia Napa affair
The so-called Ayia Napa affair started as a summer fling in July 2019 between Emma and an Israeli she called Sam, who was 19 at the time. The two seemingly carefree teenagers traveled and partied, on vacation far from home. Throughout their short romance, there were flirtatious texts, smiling selfies together, sex, and a half-hearted profession of love by the young man. Like many a summer romance, there were also loose plans to stay in touch and meet again someday.
Emma, a resident of Derbyshire in the East Midlands, had arrived in Ayia Napa on July 10, 2019, with four girlfriends to begin a working summer holiday as a bartender, her lawyer told The Times of Israel.
Before the pandemic, the resort town of about 3,000 residents was known as a rowdy “party” destination on the Mediterranean Sea, popular mainly with young tourists from across Europe, Britain, and Israel on short jaunts often fueled by alcohol, loud music, and dalliances.
According to Emma, she first met Sam (also a pseudonym), a resident of Jerusalem and a midfielder for a local soccer team, two days later after he and his group of friends approached her and her friends during a night out.
Sam didn’t speak much English but he and Emma managed to communicate, according to her account, and they got along well. They soon began a physical relationship.
Emma described Sam as a little intense at times. She told Israeli journalists Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz of the “Orly & Guy” show that he told her “you have to come to Israel,” and “I love you.” The segment was filmed in December 2019, while Emma was awaiting the verdict on the public mischief charge. The show aired in April 2020, following her conviction.
Emma, who has been the subject of immense media scrutiny, has given only a handful of interviews, mostly to the British press; Vilnai and Meroz were the only Israeli journalists she spoke to on-record. Multiple attempts by The Times of Israel to arrange an interview with her through her lawyer were ultimately unsuccessful.
Emma told “Orly & Guy” that a day after they met, on the night of July 13, 2019, she and Sam were in his room at the Pambos Napa Rocks Hotel in Ayia Napa, which he shared with a group of friends. Other friends and fellow Israeli tourists were staying in nearby rooms. But only she and Sam were in his room – or at least that is what Emma thought, she said.
They weren’t alone. In the weeks and months to come, a short video of the two having consensual sex that night would circulate widely on social media, online forums, and messaging groups. It would become one of the centerpieces of a furious conversation, in Israel and Cyprus, about consent, rape and rape culture, and misogyny. It would also become fodder for commentators who argued that the footage proved she was clearly a willing participant in what took place a few days later.
The 19-second video appears to have been filmed surreptitiously from behind Emma by one of Sam’s friends. She would later say that she suspected Sam was in on it.
The clip is filmed in selfie mode so the Israeli youth holding the phone is in partial view. In it, Sam asks Emma to say something in Hebrew that isn’t fully clear. She asks him what it means and he responds: “Just say ‘ani hazona shel Sam’” (“I am Sam’s whore” in English).
The video was shared first with some of Sam’s friends, according to the police investigation and Emma’s lawyers.
Emma told the “Orly & Guy” show that, throughout their encounters, Sam occasionally joked about her sleeping with his friends. On the night before the alleged rape, Emma said Sam tried to convince her to have sex with one of his friends. “Hell no, I’m out of here,” she said she told him.
On the night of July 16, 2019, Emma said she was out with a group of friends when she ran into Sam.
She told “Orly & Guy”: “He came up to me and said ‘come with me, I need you to come with me.’” Emma said they started walking toward his hotel room when she asked, “Just us?” and he said yes. It was around 1 a.m. on July 17, 2019, she estimated.
“Something was different in the room,” she said. The beds had been pushed together, and there was “more stuff on the floor, it didn’t look like before.”
Emma said she and Sam started kissing as she tried to engage in conversation. “He didn’t understand much English and I don’t think he really cared,” she recalled on the show.
The two then had sex, according to her account, “and then he shouted for his friends to come in.”
“All of these Israeli guys come in and they were recording at this point. I told him, ‘You said they wouldn’t be here. I’m leaving now,’” said Emma.
“All of these Israeli guys come in and they were recording at this point. I told him, ‘You said they wouldn’t be here. I’m leaving now,’” said Emma.
But it would be nearly 30 minutes until she managed to get out of the room. According to Emma, she was pinned down and unable to leave, but her assailants, and later the Cypriot police, would claim she stayed willingly.
According to Emma, the rape began almost immediately after Sam’s friends burst into the room. She described the assault in detail to both the “Orly & Guy” show and in a documentary by British channel ITV titled “Believe Me: The Cyprus Rape Case,” which aired on April 14, 2020.
“Sam pushed me back and got his knees onto my shoulders. I couldn’t breathe the whole time. There was this moment, I remember gasping for air and thought: ‘If I don’t get out now, I’m not going to get out,'” she told ITV.
The rape, Emma told “Orly & Guy,” lasted 20 to 30 minutes during which Sam and an unclear number of his friends “took turns. They were very quick, they argued about who is next.”
“I tried to close my legs… they were getting annoyed, Sam held my legs open,” she said.
“A pivotal point when I managed to get away was when Sam yelled at someone to get him a condom and he lifted his knees off me, he lifted his weight off me,” she said. “I was able to take a big gulp of air, pulled myself out and got to the door. They tried to block the door but I managed to get through, pulled on my shorts as I ran away, left my shoes in the room.”
Emma said someone threw the shoes at her as she ran down the hall while some of the Israeli youths chased her.
“A couple of them, including Sam, ran after me and I ran faster, I managed to sprint around the corner and scream for help,” she said, recalling that she ran into someone she knew and then “fell, screaming, hysterical.”
In court documents from Emma’s sentencing hearing (Greek) dated January 7, 2020, she is recorded as testifying that while trying to make it out of the hotel, she slipped and fell onto the ground. This allowed Sam to catch up to her, according to her account, and he began saying “sorry and trying to hug [her],” according to a partial English translation of the document provided by Greek journalist Alex Katsomitros.
Emma shouted at Sam and he left, according to her testimony.
With the help of friends, Emma then walked to the Santa Marina Ayia Napa Medical Center just around the corner from the Pambos Napa Rocks Hotel, she told “Orly & Guy.” The medical professional at the clinic, identified as Dr. Sergios by the show, said he saw Emma at around 3:30 a.m.
“She was very stressed when I saw her, she was in a panic, she was crying and screaming,” said the doctor, adding that he tried to understand what had happened to her, but Emma wouldn’t say. Her friends told him she had been raped.
“I asked her but she didn’t want to speak to me, she was crying, she said ‘I don’t want men around me,’” Dr. Sergios said. He called the police “and told them to bring a woman officer because she is afraid of men.”
One of Emma’s friends, identified as Charlotte by the ITV documentary, recounted that she “was in such a traumatic state and like crying and bruises all over her body, like, it was a horrible sight.”
Charlotte said that when she first saw Emma in this state, she asked her: “Did he hurt you? And she said, ‘yeah but not just him.’ And that’s when I put it together and I asked her, ‘did they rape you,’ and she said ‘yeah.’”
The doctor submitted a report to police detailing Emma’s injuries that included bruising on her legs, her buttocks, her arms, one elbow, and her lower back, according to an illustration published in British media. During her trial, a state pathologist who examined Emma later on that early morning testified that her injuries did not clearly indicate a rape.
Charlotte also said that during their time at the clinic near the hotel, Emma was frightened by the Israeli youths, recalling that “she was just scared if they were outside the doctors’ [office] or outside looking at her or… like she was scared what they were going to do.”
Dr. Sergios told “Orly & Guy” that Emma “fainted twice because she saw the Israeli guys passing by the clinic.” Eventually, the police picked her up outside the clinic and took her to the station to get her statement.
A few hours later, at around 8 a.m., police officers descended on the Pambos Napa Rocks Hotel.
Sex, lies, and cellphone footage
Emma said she doesn’t know the exact number of people who engaged in the alleged rape, although 12 Israeli youths, including Sam, were arrested in the police operation. The investigation later revealed that some of those swept up in the arrests were not at the hotel that night; they happened to be crashing in Sam’s room or in adjacent rooms the next morning and were taken in for questioning.
Emma told “Orly & Guy” that she told the police that night that “it was a group rape, not that it was 12 people. I never said 12.”
The police did not hold a lineup so she could identify her alleged attackers, her lawyer said.
Multiple requests by The Times of Israel for clarification from the Cypriot Police on some of the details of the investigation have gone unanswered.
One major piece of evidence would be a video from the night of the alleged rape. The footage — which the Times of Israel has not seen but which was described by her lawyers and in statements from investigators during the trial — showed an unclear number of youths, including the person filming, enter the room as Emma and Sam are having sex. Emma shouts at them to stop and to get out of the room. The video ends.
Polak, who gave The Times of Israel a series of interviews starting in August 2020, said that “the only video from the night of the rape shows her [in the room] and then telling someone to get out.”
Cypriot lawyer Nicoletta Charalambidou, also on Emma’s defense team, said in a video conference interview with The Times of Israel in January 2021 that the clip “supports what she is saying. She was having sex [with Sam], people started entering the room, she tells them to go and the video stops.”
The two videos in which Emma appears to engage in consensual sex were widely perceived as having undermined her credibility as a victim after she reported the rape, said Charalambidou.
The Cypriot police “used these videos to say ‘she was consenting, what is she complaining about?’” During the trial, “the prosecution targeted her credibility” over the second video. “They said: ‘Oh, people were coming in and out [of the room] and she didn’t care,’” Charalambidou recalled.
Both lawyers emphasized that there is no known video of Emma having sex with anyone other than Sam and no footage of group sex, as later suggested in court, media reports and online chatter.
Following the Israeli youths’ arrest, a separate video that purported to feature Emma but was later revealed to be lifted from a porn site would circulate widely in Israel and on forums. In it, a young blonde woman engages in sexual acts with what appears to be a number of young Israeli men speaking Hebrew. The clip was shot on a cellphone and was first uploaded to a porn streaming site in 2015.
The phone rings in Israel
Israeli lawyer Nir Yaslovitzh said he got a call from Sam’s parents the morning of the teen’s arrest.
“They asked me to fly to Cyprus to represent him and I did so immediately,” he told The Times of Israel in a December 2020 phone interview.
In addition to Sam, the Israeli lawyer also represented the Israeli teenager who filmed the first video of Emma on July 13, 2019, and two additional youths who were initially arrested and quickly released because police were able to confirm they were not at the scene of the alleged rape days later.
Yaslovitzh said he knew it would be “the case of my life,” as the story made waves in Israel.
The Israeli lawyer has made a name for himself defending fellow nationals arrested abroad in recent years. Yaslovitzh previously defended Moshe Harel, a then 70-year-old Israeli national arrested in Cyprus in 2018 over suspicions he was the brains behind an international organ trafficking ring. The lawyer said he successfully fought Harel’s extradition to Russia.
More recently, Yaslovitzh was dispatched to represent Israeli couple Mordy and Natali Oknin in Turkey, where they were arrested in November 2021 for suspected espionage. The couple was held for a week before being freed, following high-level diplomatic intervention.
The Israeli lawyer said he represented one of the main suspects in an August 2020 gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in the southern city of Eilat that rocked Israel that summer, a year after the Ayia Napa affair. In 2021, 11 Israelis ranging in age from 16 to 28 were charged in the case. Court proceedings against other suspects are ongoing.
Yaslovitzh said the two cases were “very similar” in two main ways. In both cases the media “convicted the suspects from the beginning,” Yaslovitzh said, likening the press to a lynch mob that wanted to “hang the suspects” in the town square.
Second, he said, both cases played out in the context of what he described as “the sexual dynamics between young people today” which are “much more liberal than our parents.”
“We’re seeing a very big sexual development that leads to events like this and then afterward we have to figure out if it was rape or wasn’t rape,” opined Yaslovitzh.
In Ayia Napa in July 2019, Yaslovitzh said he immediately got to work and was present when the police began interrogating his clients.
The police had found at least five used condoms in the room and 13 condom wrappers, according to records seen by the “Orly & Guy” show, and were working to process DNA samples from the 12 suspects. On July 25, 2019, five of those arrested were released for lack of evidence tying them to the alleged assault.
The arrest of unrelated persons proved to work against Emma. The Israeli youths, their lawyer, and their supporters said it strengthened their claims that she lied about the rape.
Yaslovitzh said at the time that the release of the five Israelis pointed to “cracks in the credibility of the plaintiff’s testimony.”
Emma’s lawyers and supporters countered that the arrests of unrelated Israelis pointed to police incompetence in the investigation, including an alleged failure to properly secure the scene in the hotel room, an accusation the Cypriot police have vehemently denied.
Noa Shpigel, then the northern Israel correspondent for Israeli news site Haaretz, traveled to Ayia Napa after the arrests together with throngs of Israeli journalists from all major publications and TV channels. Shpigel said she was able to easily access the hotel room where the alleged rape took place the day after the police sweep, where she filmed a video of the alleged crime scene.
In a tweet posted July 19, 2019, as well as subsequent interviews with British media, Shpigel said she interviewed guests who had already checked in to the room. They told her they found a used condom and an empty bottle of duty-free vodka.
זה החדר שבו לפי החשד בוצע האונס בקפריסין. פחות מ 24 שעות אחרי כבר הוכנסו לשם תיירים חדשים, ישראלים, שמצאו קונדום שהושאר על הרצפה סימני ידיים על הקירות ובקבוק וודקה עם תוית מהדיוטי פרי בישראל pic.twitter.com/5iHad2tuoi
— Noa Shpigel (@NoaShpigel) July 19, 2019
The head of the police investigation, Marius Christou of the Famagusta Police District, later claimed during Emma’s trial that the condom had been planted by Israeli journalists, which Shpigel said was a “blatant and ridiculous lie.”
Getting only the Israeli side
When Israelis are at the center of an international news story, Israel’s media deploys in force. Flights and hotels are booked, and phalanxes of Israeli reporters can be seen broadcasting live from the scene of the story.
The Ayia Napa affair was no exception and was made even more of a media circus by the fact that the island nation is only a 45-minute flight from Israel.
In Israel, members of the press often have broad access to a wide array of officials and others, even if under the cover of anonymity. In Cyprus, they quickly found that few were willing to speak to them.
“In Cyprus, they didn’t understand what we were doing, why those journalists were coming and sticking their noses in,” Shpigel told The Times of Israel in a videoconference interview in October 2020.
“You know, in Israel, lawyers… talk a lot, but in Cyprus, they didn’t understand why we talked to them at all, why we asked them questions. It was so weird for them,” she added.
Shpigel spent hours outside the local police station in Ayia Napa waiting for someone to talk to, standard reporter procedure in Israel.
“The police officers, they were walking out looking at us saying ‘what are you doing here?’ and we were like ‘we are reporters, we need to report,’ and they were like ‘yeah, but you’re gonna get nothing here… no one is going to talk to you. Do you want some lemonade?’” she recalled.
In this vacuum, the initiative – and the narrative – was seized by the Israeli attorneys representing the suspects, Shpigel stated, chief among them Yaslovitzh.
“It was really tough to get sources in Cyprus,” she said. Many journalists turned to the convenience of a readily available authority willing to speak.
Emma, meanwhile, took longer to obtain legal representation, and Shpigel said though Israeli journalists tried to reach her or a representative, those in her corner generally shied from the press.
The resulting coverage was wildly one-sided, and rife with rumors and falsehoods.
“They’re Israelis, we’re Israelis, you know, so it kind of creates a situation that only part of the story got to the Israeli audience,” Shpigel said.
A Globes article from July 2019 (Hebrew) mentions that a Channel 12 journalist in Cyprus reported on air that he had received information “that a friend of the attacked woman said [Emma] had received a generous payoff in the past over a gang rape that she endured, and that [Emma] was a stripper.”
The Globes report also mentioned that Army Radio interviewed an Israeli youth in Cyprus on the air about how “the British girls in Cyprus are easy with everyone. It could have been her fault.”
Parents of the suspects were given wide leeway in the press to level accusations against Emma and provide heart-wrenching descriptions of their kids’ plight.
Emma “was drunk and fell down and later makes a claim that she was raped,” the mother of a suspect was quoted telling Ynet that month. The arrested youths are “good boys, salt of the earth, some of them were supposed to enlist in [elite IDF commando unit] Sayeret Matkal and the Shayetet [naval commandos],” claimed the mom.
Israeli journalists reported that videos showed sexual contact with other youths besides Sam, and that Emma’s injuries were sustained when she fell down the stairs in the hotel.
News articles published quotes from the suspects during police questioning that argued Emma had consented to group sex. “She initiated things, she chose who got to participate,” one of the Israeli youths was quoted as saying in a Walla piece.
“She was with two, three guys. But suddenly with 12, that’s the breaking point?” asked a veteran Israeli journalist.
Roni Daniel, a veteran Israeli military correspondent known for his gruff demeanor who has since died, sparked a media storm when he said of the complainant, “she was with two, three guys. But suddenly with 12, that’s the breaking point?”
The Israeli coverage helped to paint a picture of “a debauched young woman who didn’t take care of herself enough and got into a problematic situation, versus a group of good boys who got in trouble,” Globes wrote.
This narrative took shape not only with the Israeli public but on the streets of Cyprus as well.
Shpigel said, “The rumors – that she was a dancer, that she had [sued] before, the guys in Cyprus, taxi drivers, would tell you the same stories. They [the Israeli lawyers] did such […] good work that everybody else was telling you the same stories that they managed to spread all over.”
An Israel Hayom article from July 2019 mentioned the allegation that the woman was a stripper and had received a payoff. It credited the source as “the attorney for some of the [Israeli] suspects.”
No proof was found for either of these assertions, which were denied by Emma and her legal team.
Polak, the British lawyer on Emma’s defense team, told The Times of Israel in one interview that Yaslovitzh was a source of disinformation about Emma. “He said she was a stripper, he said she previously filed a rape complaint — the Israeli media ate it all up without question.”
Yaslovitzh denied involvement. “I don’t know where [these stories] came from. I also heard these stories,” he said.
But in conversation with The Times of Israel, he also found it relevant to allude to the fact that Emma was sexually active.
She “was very – it’s her right — she was very liberal,” he said.
Not an ‘ideal victim’
Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, argued that the prevailing narrative surrounding the affair was one of victim-blaming.
“She was in a relationship so people had a hard time wrapping their heads around a rape. She wasn’t an ‘ideal victim,’” Sulitzeanu told The Times of Israel in a February 2021 phone interview. The term is a concept developed by Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie in 1986 that defines the “ideal victim” as “a person or category of individuals who… most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim.”
Bracha Barad, the executive director of feminist Israeli organization Kulan, said the Ayia Napa affair was “part of a very bad culture of blaming the victim” in the Israeli press and online.
“Even through the bad media coverage, it was very clear what was happening,” Barad said.
In Cyprus too, “the focus on her was more negative than those she accused,” said Magda Zedon, a women’s rights activist in Cyprus and a podcast host. The general sentiment among the “male population was ‘oh, one more English girl who came to Cyprus and got drunk.’ They threw the responsibility on her.”
“It’s Ayia Napa, everyone is free and easy, there’s alcohol, drugs… this vibe of free association, partying. She was up against this context,” said Zedon in a phone interview in November 2020.
Zedon said the issue of consent was “a major concept” in this case. “People don’t actually get it, no means no,” she lamented, adding that this is not unique to Cyprus.
“It happens in Spain, Greece, Israel,” Zedon said, pointing to the suspected gang rape in Eilat the summer following the Ayia Napa affair.
Sulitzeanu said the Eilat case caused a “public outcry in Israel” and “woke people up about rape culture.”
“Young people, adolescents here think it’s cool to have group sex, it’s part of ‘being a gever’ [a man]. They grow up watching porn; sex is online and accessible,” said Sulitzeanu.
In the Eilat case, unlike Ayia Napa, “there was no victim-blaming, there was none of that ‘maybe she wanted it,'” she said.
Sulitzeanu said the Ayia Napa affair reminded her of some of the events in the Netflix series “Unbelievable,” released in September 2019 and based on “An unbelievable story of rape,” a 2015 investigation by ProPublica and the Marshall Project.
The article tells the story of a teenager, 18 at the time, from Washington state who was brutally raped but retracted her claim after being disbelieved. She was subsequently prosecuted. A few years later, following similar cases in another state and the work of two tenacious female detectives, the rapist was found and arrested for multiple counts of stalking and rape. He took personal items from his victims and photos of them, the young woman among them.
“It was like that – unbelievable, outrageous. It’s one thing not to believe her, it’s another to prosecute her. It’s just so extreme,” Sulitzeanu said.
From rape victim to suspect
Ten days after the initial arrests, seven Israelis remained in custody and the Cypriot police were continuing to investigate Emma’s rape allegations.
That day, July 27, 2019, Emma received a call from the police requesting she come in to answer more questions for what she thought was a procedural matter, she later told the “Orly & Guy” program.
That evening, a Saturday, a police car picked her up. But instead of taking her to the local station in Ayia Napa where she had filed the rape complaint, officers took Emma about eight kilometers (4.9 miles) north to Paralimni.
Sensing that something was off, Emma said she sent her mom a text telling her she was being driven to a different police station.
According to Emma’s lawyers, she then spent roughly six hours being questioned by Christou, the chief investigator, and another officer while growing increasingly alarmed at where the interrogation was headed.
Emma said Christou started to push her to retract her claim, threatened to arrest her British friends, and ignored her requests to speak to a lawyer. The investigator later said in court that Emma willingly waived her rights to counsel.
A few hours into the interrogation – in which she was not told she was being questioned as a suspect, in a violation of her rights, her lawyers later argued – Emma said she sent a message to a friend via Snapchat. “They’ve just tried to make me sign something. They’ve gone standoff,” it read, according to the “Orly & Guy” show.
Emma’s mother, Debra, told the show that the friend contacted her immediately and said “there’s something really bad going on with the police.”
A retraction statement was produced for Emma to sign. The statement, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, read in part: “The report I did on the 17th of July 2019 that I was raped at ayia napa was not the truth. The truth is that I wasnt raped and everything that happened in that appartment was with my consent. The reason I made the statement with the fake report is because I did not know they were recording & humiliating me that night I discovered them recording me doing sexual intercourse and I felt embarrassed so I want to appologise, say I made a mistake.”
Emma said Christou had formulated the statement and insisted she sign it, a claim he denied in court.
Expert analysis from a forensic linguist commissioned by Emma’s defense team pointed to strange turns of phrase, such as “doing sexual intercourse” and “discovered them recording,” and misspellings like “appartment.” The conclusion: Part of the document was likely written by someone other than Emma, a native English speaker.
But Emma said she was under pressure to sign. “Marius [Christou] said a few times that if I sign, I could leave and it’ll all be over. He said he spoke to the Israelis and they were going home to forget about it and I should go home and forget about it,” she told “Orly & Guy.”
“He said ‘it’ll be a slap on the wrist, it’ll be fine, just sign this.'”
“He said ‘it’ll be a slap on the wrist, it’ll be fine, just sign this.’ He would shout and slam down on the table,” Emma recalled.
“There was no other way out of that police station other than to sign that retraction statement. I thought, as soon as I am outside that volatile environment I can sort this out. When you’re in that situation, the only sensible thing to do is to conform,” she told ITV.
Emma relented, but instead of being let go, she was promptly arrested. “I asked [Christou] ‘what’s going on, why am I being arrested,’ and he said ‘it’s out of my control now,’” she said.
Emma managed to text her mother that she was being handcuffed and to contact the British embassy. She spent that night in jail.
To the surprise of many, including Cypriots, it later emerged that investigators do not record interrogations, and only keep brief notes, as standard procedure. There is no video or audio documentation of Emma’s six-hour questioning by police. During her trial, the judge relied on Christou’s oral testimony regarding that night.
From alleged rapists to ‘heroes’
The morning after Emma’s arrest, July 28, 2019, Yaslovitzh got a call from Christou bearing “good news,” he later told the “Orly & Guy” show. Emma had retracted her rape complaint. She would now be prosecuted for making a false accusation. The official charge: public mischief.
As Emma sat in jail, the seven remaining suspects were freed, and by the afternoon of July 28 they were back in Israel. In the cavernous arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport, the seven youths hugged relatives, danced with friends and well-wishers, popped a bottle of sparkling wine, and chanted “the British girl is a whore.”
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) July 28, 2019
A scrum of news crews captured the celebration on video, blurring the youths’ faces and broadcasting the footage prominently.
Yaslovitzh told The Times of Israel that he had asked the youths while they were still in Cyprus to keep a low profile and not speak to the media upon their return, but they had rejected his advice.
The “heroes’ welcome” was widely criticized in Israel. Many rejected the gauche display as distasteful, though few questioned the youths’ release from prison.
Meanwhile, Emma’s arrest was met with animated coverage in Israel, and the cellphone videos of her and Sam having consensual sex, circulating in wider and wider arcs through news forums, social media, and WhatsApp groups, only solidified the idea for many that she had falsely accused the Israeli youths.
“I watched all of the videos from Ayia Napa and I have some conclusions. It’s obvious that there was no rape there, but I still have a serious feeling of disgust,” a reporter for Channel 10 news (which has since become Channel 13) wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post that went viral.
He wrote that “the complainant lied and almost ruined [the Israeli youths’] lives,” though, after the debauched airport display, he concluded that they “had lost all concept of the true meaning of what it means to be a man.”
No investigation into revenge porn
In Israel, the circulation of the sex videos raised the ire of women’s rights activists. They accused the Israeli youths of peddling “revenge porn” – a crime in Israel.
Sivan Mor, an Israeli social worker and women’s rights activist, told The Times of Israel, “we couldn’t file a complaint for gang rape [in Israel] although it was clear that that was what happened,” but these videos were sent “without her knowledge and consent, and that is a felony.”
The authorities, she said, were aware but “nobody’s doing anything about it, so we decided to take things into our own hands. And we went as a group to file a police complaint in Israel.”
The complaint was filed August 9, 2019, at the Tel Aviv Police District headquarters in south Tel Aviv.
“The police were shocked,” said Mor. “They were like, ‘why, what’s your connection [to this]? You’re not the victims’… But they were nice. There was even one policewoman who was like ‘good for you.’”
Mor said the idea was to launch a public campaign and have people add their names to the complaint, though the head of the 105 unit, which investigates crimes such as cyberbullying and revenge porn against children and adolescents online, told the “Orly & Guy” show that only the victim can file a complaint.
Nonetheless, police gave Mor’s group the file number and apparently incorrect phone numbers for people to call should they wish to add to the complaint, both of which were posted online.
“Many people tried calling the numbers and nobody got an answer,” Mor said.
About a month later, police closed the file, said Mor. A separate complaint filed by a group of activists in Jerusalem suffered the same fate. No reason was stated in either case.
Mor charged that the police were simply unwilling to investigate the videos.
“Israeli cyber[security] is one of the best in the world. Like, if there was a terrorist… sending something from his phone, they would trace him in a second. But when it’s a rapist… even [of] foreign girls, then, ‘oh, somehow we can’t trace the phone.’ That’s bullshit,” Mor told The Times of Israel in late August 2020.
She linked the outcome of Emma’s complaint and general sentiment around the case to “a rape culture, an imbalance of power between men and women.”
“[Emma’s] story is just like the extreme of what happens to so many women. So many women are raped and nobody believes them,” she said.
Following the police’s decision to close the revenge porn cases, Mor set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Emma’s defense in Cyprus against the public mischief charge and to fund a possible future lawsuit in Israel against the circulation of the videos. The campaign raised over NIS 200,000 ($62,000).
Emma’s lawyers have said that suing over the videos is an avenue she has considered.
Her first lawyer, Cypriot attorney Andreas Pittadjis, has maintained that the dissemination of the videos was a more severe offense than lying about a rape.
“The offense my client is accused of is not considered to be one of the most serious offenses in our criminal system,” Pittadjis said following a court hearing on July 30, 2019, in comments cited by the Cyprus Mail.
“The fact that the video of my client appears to have gone around the world is a much more serious offense. I want to know who leaked this video and why? This sort of crime is punishable by more than a year in prison. Someone should investigate – both here and in Israel,” he said.
Pittadjis withdrew from the case just nine days after Emma’s family hired him, citing differences with his client.
Emma’s subsequent lawyers, including Polak and Charalambidou, indicated to The Times of Israel in separate interviews that Pittadjis had advised her to confess to the public mischief charge and possibly pay a fine so she could go home.
Emma refused. On August 27, she entered a plea of “not guilty” at Famagusta district court in Paralimni.
Support from three countries
Following Emma’s arrest, two groups descended on Cyprus: British media, which was sympathetic to Emma’s plight and had turned her into a cause celebre, and Israeli activists protesting the Cypriot decision to prosecute her, who were joined by locals and British citizens who also saw the case as a miscarriage of justice.
Barad, from the Israeli organization Kulan, told The Times of Israel she went to Cyprus to show her support for Emma and women’s rights in the country and elsewhere.
“We were able to come from different countries, from three different countries, and to look at one another and feel that we are sharing, you know, the same struggle,” said Barad.
The activists held rallies in Ayia Napa and near the Famagusta district court where Emma was taken for various hearings.
Sulitzeanu, from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, said the reception of the Israeli activists in Cyprus was “very warm, very welcoming. It showed that Israeli activism is very vibrant and strong and organized.”
“People asked me ‘why are you going? Worry about your own.’ But I went for myself, for my girls [daughters], to show that not all Israelis are like [the youths]. We really felt we were doing something. We met [Emma’s] mother to show our support,” Sulitzeanu recalled in a phone interview last February.
Meanwhile, whispers of political meddling began sprouting in the British and Cypriot press. Israel and Cyprus enjoy close ties and economic interests. At the time, the countries, together with Greece, were engaged in high-stakes negotiations over plans for a pipeline to bring natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, potentially transforming the region.
“We can’t prove it, but there is this widespread sense that the girl has fallen victim to a political game of interests,” a prominent Cypriot activist told The Guardian.
Emma’s mom, Debra, has said she believed “there was some kind of pressure from Israel to get the boys out of their situation” and out of Cyprus as soon as possible.
Polak said the “support the boys got was quite strong, I felt, from the Israeli government. But it’s difficult to say.”
In a statement to The Times of Israel in December 2020, a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that “the only help the [Israeli] embassy gave them was at the consular level.”
“It [is] the same treatment any Israeli citizen gets when he is arrested or incarcerated abroad,” the spokesperson said. “We visit him, see that he gets the same conditions as others and that he has the basic needs. We do not interfere with the legal process.”
The ministry denied knowledge of any diplomatic tensions with Cyprus or the UK stemming from the affair.
But on the ground, the general atmosphere was tense, said Haaretz’s Shpigel. There was a sense that the whole system was working together to prove that the country was safe and that Emma had lied, she said.
Yiannis Karousos, the mayor of Ayia Napa in 2019, tweeted at The Sun newspaper the day of Emma’s arrest that the rape allegations “proved to be fake with the testimony of the alleged ‘victim’ she stated that it was consensual & that she invited them. enormous defamation for our city. Will you now publish the necessary corrections?”
The mayor told the “Orly & Guy” show that Emma “must be punished one way or another. She did severe damage to [the] image of Cyprus.”
“They didn’t care about the girl, this was the general atmosphere from Cyprus,” said Shpigel.
Charalambidou, whose practice is based in the capital Nicosia, said she remembers the whole national dialogue as hostile to the teen.
“They were saying ‘who is this girl, making accusations? After her retraction, things became even worse. It was all ‘defend Ayia Napa,’” she recalled.
For some Israelis, the fact that a parent of one of the Israeli teenagers worked as a senior official in the Jerusalem Municipality further fueled suspicions that there had been political machinations behind the scenes.
Stranded in Cyprus
For four weeks after her arrest, Emma was kept in jail as various hearings took place.
Charalambidou remembered visiting Emma in jail for the first time in mid-August, 2019. The lawyer had been hired along with Polak, from the UK’s Justice Abroad, just after Pittadjis quit the case. Charalambidou said she met “a young, traumatized girl who’d been raped and was now in prison.”
“She went from victim to suspect, without a lawyer, without support,” said the attorney.
After pleading not guilty and posting bail of approximately €20,000, Emma was released under restrictive conditions that included having to hand over her passport to the police and presenting herself at a police station three times a week to check in (later reduced to once a week).
She was also barred from leaving Cyprus. From late August 2019, when she was released from prison, to January 2020, when she was finally allowed to return to the UK, Emma and her mother Debra moved between short-term rental apartments.
Debra told the “Orly & Guy” show that the two bounced between 19 such apartments over that period.
According to court documents, Emma also sought psychological care and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a UK psychologist who later also submitted a report on her condition as part of Emma’s defense.
Citing her mental health, Emma filed a request in mid-November 2019 asking the court to let her return home to the UK to await the rest of the proceedings.
“My mental health is very vulnerable and in a very bad condition, and every day that passes and I do not return to my country to receive specialized care… my mental health deteriorates,” Emma wrote.
Her request was denied.
‘Yelling, shouting and aggressive’
Emma’s trial began in mid-October 2019 with Judge Michalis Papathanasiou of the Famagusta District Court in Paralimni presiding.
Shpigel, who traveled back to Cyprus to cover the court proceedings, said the scene left an impression.
“She had a woman who was translating for her, but it would take a few seconds between the judge saying something and [her] getting what he said, and in those seconds you see her face. And she doesn’t know what to do with herself. She’s scratching her skin all the time, she had acne, she’s very young and she’s scratching herself and she’s looking lost,” Shpigel said.
The judge, she said, “wasn’t gentle at all. In a situation like this, it’s kind of expected that the judge will be a little bit gentle – he wasn’t, he was yelling and shouting and very aggressive and it made the whole situation even more stressful.”
To Shpigel, Emma looked “very insecure” and “very miserable,” while still “trying to look strong, she’s trying to hold herself… not to cry, not to look weak. So she’s standing trying to hold herself so she doesn’t fall down,” she told The Times of Israel.
In court, the prosecution began painting a picture of a young woman who had engaged in group sex and regretted the decision because there was video documentation. Its main piece of evidence was Emma’s retraction statement to police, which suggested she felt insulted and embarrassed that Sam’s friends had filmed her “doing sexual intercourse.”
The state also relied on police testimony and expert opinion from state pathologist Sophocles Sophocleous, who examined Emma after the assault. He stated that he could not determine whether a rape had occurred and that Emma showed no signs of violence on her body. He attributed some bruising on her leg to old injuries and said there was no bruising to her genitalia but some blood could have been from “stress.”
The judge heard from four investigators, including Christou, who spoke at length. One investigator described to the court that he had found sex videos of Emma on five of the phones confiscated from the 12 Israelis while in custody. The investigator said he did not go through text messages on the phones, only videos. Another investigator said he found no deleted recordings on the phones.
During his testimony, lead investigator Christou said he found inconsistencies in Emma’s three sit-downs with police on the alleged rape. Emma cited two different numbers as her hotel room and gave two different accounts as to the timing of the assault and how it unfolded, he said.
“How is it possible to have a video of consensual sex which is followed by rape?”
Christou also said he saw the video of Emma having consensual sex with one Israeli. “How is it possible to have a video of consensual sex which is followed by rape?” he asked, according to the translation provided by the Greek journalist who read the court documents.
Christou denied any mishandling of the investigation.
Emma’s defense presented expert analysis on her retraction statement by Dr. Andrea Nini, a forensic linguist and lecturer in linguistics and English language at the University of Manchester.
Dated October 28, 2019, an 18-page forensic analysis of the confession carried out by Nini stated that “the linguistic evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that all or some parts of the disputed paragraph were not composed by DEFENDANT in her own words but were dictated to her by someone who speaks English as a second language.”
Nini’s analysis focused on the police statement that was reportedly given by Emma on July 28, 2019. He told The Times of Israel in a September 2020 interview via videoconference that the first and last paragraphs of the three-paragraph retraction document did not appear to be put together by Emma.
According to Nini, the strongest indications that the passages were written by a non-native English speaker included the use of the construction “do report,” the use of “not the truth” instead of “not true,” “doing sexual intercourse,” and the way the complainant allegedly wrote that she “discovered them recording.” In addition, the use of “apartment” instead of “flat” is more likely to be used by someone who is not a native speaker of British English, he noted.
The defense also called on Dr. Marios Matsakis, a Greek-Cypriot doctor and forensic pathologist (and controversial former politician), to testify on the report provided by state pathologist Sophocleous. Matsakis, who had not physically examined Emma, disputed the state pathologist’s findings that there had been no bruises, based on the documented evidence including a set of 15 photographs of Emma after the alleged rape. He said the existing report was “incomplete.”
“So, we have a woman, obviously suffering as the photos show, with a large number of external injuries, most of which are recent. Some of them indicate that they may have been caused through pressure applied with hands and there is also fresh blood in the victim’s vagina,” he said in testimony the judge found to be unreliable.
Emma was convicted of public mischief in late December 2019 and received a four-month suspended sentence on January 7, 2020.
In the sentencing report, Judge Papathanasiou noted the “seriousness of the offense” and how, in the name of deterrence, “the only appropriate punishment in relation to the accusation is… imprisonment.”
But the judge also took into account Emma’s youth, her “immaturity,” her mental health, the disruption to her life and her time away from home, her apology to the court, as well as the global publicity, as reasons for leniency.
He cited “the social consequences that the extensive publicity given to the case” as harmful to “the accused,” who should be able to move on from the affair.
“We respect the decision of the judge and accept the sentence,” Yaslovitzh, the Israelis’ lawyer, said at the time. “What is important for us is that the judge found her guilty. The important thing is we hope the girl learns her lesson from all this.”
The appeal to the Supreme Court
Charalambidou posited that the publicity surrounding the case “created the conditions to consider [public mischief] as a serious offense. She was British, the judge used it as the main criteria.” Her rape complaint and then retraction was seen as “defaming the country,” she explained.
The judge in Emma’s trial was one of the central elements in the appeal. Polak pointed to his dismissal from the get-go of the possibility that the case could involve a legitimate rape complaint.
“There was bias but also the judge hasn’t given her the presumption of innocence. Because a presumption of innocence would require that he consider each element of the offense before finding her guilty,” Polak said.
Instead, the judge rejected evidence relating to the alleged rape, putting Emma’s defense in an arguably unwinnable situation, Polak indicated. Without being able to present evidence showing that the rape complaint was legitimate, the defense had no way to dispute the charge that she had made a false allegation.
“The judge continuously said, ‘This is not a rape trial, I don’t want to hear evidence about rape. He said this seven times in the [court] transcripts. He closed his mind to the central elements,” Polak told The Times of Israel in a September 17, 2021, phone interview, the day after the appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of Cyprus.
“We argued two main points: that the trial judge did not apply the burden of proof and that the retraction statement should have been thrown out,” Polak said.
In their 153-page appeal, Emma’s lawyers also argued that key expert testimonies were disregarded during court proceedings and that the police and the judge had ignored or misinterpreted important details about the alleged rape.
According to a summary in English of the Supreme Court ruling posted by Justice Abroad, the justices accepted the defense team’s arguments that the retraction statement should not have been admitted in court as it was given under duress, that key expert testimony and a witness account were disregarded, and that the judge had ignored or misinterpreted important details about the alleged rape.
“The appellant is acquitted,” wrote the judges.
Polak said following the ruling that “the next step for justice to be done is a full review and investigation of the case” by a different police force.
The comment echoed a statement issued by Emma’s family expressing “great relief” and urging a new investigation based on evidence gathered in Cyprus.
Justice or nothing
Yaslovitzh told The Times of Israel on the day of the appeal ruling that the decision “changes nothing” for the Israelis.
“If I understand correctly, the meaning is not that they will reopen everything from the beginning now,” he said. “I am not worried about the future at all.”
He maintained that his clients engaged in consensual “group sex.”
The ruling indicates only “failings in [the woman’s] trial, and not my clients’ guilt,” he also told Israeli news site Ynet.
Since the “heroes’ welcome” at Ben-Gurion Airport, the Israelis have for the most part stayed quiet. They and their families have not given any interviews and have kept a low profile on social media.
As of now, no Israeli media outlet has published the names of any of the former suspects, some of whom were adults at the time of their arrest. (The Times of Israel also chose not to publish the names of those who were over 18 at the time of their arrest because they were not charged and are not public figures. Their names can be found online.)
British media outlets, on the other hand, have published some of the names, including Sam’s full name and picture.
Yaslovitzh said that with the case firmly in the rearview mirror, Sam “lives his life and is in the army.” The other suspects were also conscripted, he said.
Emma is now a university student back in the UK. Her story is still open-ended, and she has remained in the spotlight with her eyes focused on the future.
The Israeli and Cypriot activists, as well as her lawyers, have all expressed admiration for her strength and tenacity throughout the years.
She told ITV: “There is no doubt in my mind that in the end, be it a year down the line, be it 50 years down the line, I will achieve justice.”
Ben Hartman, Alex Katsomitros, Joshua Davidovich, and agencies contributed to this report.