PARIS – Lenient sentences and acquittals for 14 men accused of gang raping two teenage girls are causing a stir in France, where women's organizations decry what they call a culture of impunity and even politicians from the governing party have expressed shock at the ruling. The prosecutor's office said Friday it would appeal.
On Thursday, a court in Creteil convicted four of the men of repeatedly gang raping one of the girls in a tough neighborhood outside Paris more than 10 years ago. The 10 others were acquitted, including all those accused of raping the second girl.
Most of the prison time handed out was suspended. The longest term was for five years, four of which were suspended. The lightest term was for three years, all suspended.
Clothilde Lepetit, a lawyer for the victims, called the verdict a "slap in the face," according to the Sipa news agency. The victim whose accusations led to convictions told French television she thought the verdict was a joke and that she had been living a nightmare since it was handed down. Neither victim has been identified by her real name.
The prosecutor's office for the Paris region said Friday it would appeal all four sentences and four of the acquittals, Sipa reported.
But that has not stopped outrage from many quarters, including from more than 30 women's organizations, which have started a petition online demanding a government response, including stronger laws to protect women.
"This verdict is catastrophic," the petition on www.change.org says. "It seems to say to victims, bringing charges is worthless, and to rapists, you will not be condemned or barely!"
The petition, which has gathered more than 2,400 signatures, laments a France in which few victims report their rapes, even fewer get convictions and where a woman who does come forward is immediately shamed and discredited.
While the petition is calling for better laws to fight violence against women, it recalls a debate earlier this year over rampant sexual harassment in France, where catcalling in the streets in considered a sign of appreciation and off-color remarks are common in the workplace. A new law now makes sexual harassment a crime punishable by jail time after the old one was struck down for being too vague.
Government ministers also expressed surprise and disappointment at the ruling.
"This affair won't encourage ... victims to come forward," Health Minister Marisol Touraine said on French radio France Inter.
Before the prosecutor's office announced it would appeal, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said she was dismayed by the verdict. This decision is "unacceptable from an ethical point of view and for the integrity of the victims," she told Europe-1 radio.