Shock over light sentence in sexual assault

Sentences like these have men walking out of courtrooms thinking ‘well I did it, but nothing bad happened to me’ - equality czar

The Commissioner for the Promotion of Equality, Renee Laiviera
The Commissioner for the Promotion of Equality, Renee Laiviera

The sentencing of perpetrators of violent crimes against women has been wanting, as the court of public opinion reels from news of a suspended sentence for a sex offender.

While the cases have been many, only last week a convicted sex offender had his 18-month prison sentence suspended on appeal: the offender had chased his victim down, having refused his advances, and then beat her up and tore off her clothes. The assault ended only when passers-by intervened.

Despite Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera agreeing that the offender was guilty – confirming the findings of the Court of Magistrates – she disagreed with the punishment and imposed a lighter sentence. In her 57-page decision on the appeal, Consuelo Scerri cited the offender’s age – he had been 20 at the time – as a reason, and that the offender had no previous criminal record.

But a spokesperson for the Commission on Gender-based Violence and Domestic Violence said that it was left concerned by the decision to lessen the offender’s sentence. “The commission is of the impression that offenders who commit these crimes should serve a prison sentence that is effective.”

The commission said it was important to send a clear message to society that violence towards women should not be tolerated. “The commission hopes that future judgements within our courts better reflect the recent changes that have been put into law, and include increased penalties that serve to deter people from committing these crimes.”

Yet lawyer Michael Sciriha, who did not comment on the case specifically, argued that despite the perception of the public, the judiciary was, in fact, sensitive to cases involving violence against women.

“I do think the judiciary is sensitive to these sorts of cases, but you have to understand, that it is never easy or clean cut. When you're talking about cases of assault, rape, domestic abuse and so on, there are many mitigating factors that have to be taken into consideration,” Sciriha said.

Sciriha told MaltaToday that in such cases the judiciary tends to take a cautious approach. “A lot of it has to do with credibility. In fact, in the majority of cases, there is a lot of back and forth between what one person has said, and what the other person is claiming has happened.”

Sciriha said often cases are further complicated by the fact that the offender and the accused would have been romantically intertwined.

“Sometimes things can go sour, and because of that, there could be vindictiveness involved… there have also been cases to do with consent where one person says they were given consent, however, the other person denies it. All of this needs to be taken into consideration by the judge – which is why they proceed with caution.”

Sciriha, however, disagrees that court sentencing was lax.

“Believe me, I’ve seen some very harsh sentences over the years – people see a judgement on a piece of paper, but there are a lot of factors that go into making that final decision, such as taking into the consideration witness testimony.

“One might think foreigners tend to get heavier sentences, but that’s usually because those cases tend to be very clear cut… the judiciary always tries its best to hand out fair sentences,” he said.

But the Commissioner for the Promotion of Equality, Renee Laiviera, told MaltaToday that she disagreed, saying the rapist’s lenient sentence on appeal carried weight not only on how women perceive the justice system, but also on how society as a whole saw the justice system.

“We know these sentences send a message: to the victims, to society and to the offenders, that is a fact. Women are given the impression that there is no point coming forward, if they felt receiving justice was not an option. What message would it send to the victims if offenders’ lives were not changed for the worse in any way?

“Sentences like these have men walking out of courtrooms thinking ‘well I did it, but nothing bad happened to me’. This will have a serious effect on how other men perceive this issue. It will validate in their mind that it is not as serious of an issue as some people are making it out to be, and ultimately will leave them with an impression that they can, in fact, get away with it with it,” Laiviera insisted.

And she adds a warning: that this kind of cases can have a dire, holistic effect that bleeds into every aspect of society. “This affects the way we bring up our children – it will teach them that these things are acceptable.”

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