A woman who accused a group of homeless migrants of raping her, in a Puerto Rico park, in Mogán, has testified this week that she had felt intimidated by the four young men she had been speaking to, who, she says, acting in concert, violated her, on a Friday night, in her own neighbourhood, at the end of February 2021, after an evening out with friends to celebrate a birthday. She stated that all four defendants penetrated her after she spoke with them in a public park, in an assault that occurred near her family home. The defence contests the facts, as presented by the prosecution, and say the complainants version of the story does not fit with the evidence.
During the long awaited criminal trial of the group, dubbed by the Spanish press as “La Manada de Puerto Rico“, she said she had made a decision to remain silent while being sexually assaulted, and to adopt a submissive attitude, because it seemed “the safest” way to leave as soon as possible.
Being heard at the Las Palmas Provincial Courts, the victim maintained her version of events that she had given during the investigative proceedings, however defence lawyers found “multiple contradictions” in her testimony, as well as in the body of evidence presented by the prosecution, who have requested €100,000 in damages and unusually heavy sentences, ranging from 58 to 61 years in prison. There is, according to the public prosecution, sufficient objective evidence to rebut any presumption of innocence.
The victim has denied, before the court, the defendants claims, that the sexual acts were entered into consensually. One of the defendants stated that he “was never with her” nor did he participate, or witness, what happened between her and the other three.
The judge presiding, Pilar Parejo, in a contentious hearing, intervened several times during the defence lawyers’ questions, due to their repeated insistence in pressing the witness, as they sought to undermine the accusation based on the woman’s own testimony. One of them, representing the accused with the initials M. E. B., said that the prosecutor was trying to have the court believe that the victim “was a little lamb,” although the evidence presented did not support it. The lawyer for another, H. E. Z., on the other hand, claimed that the testimony simply “does not meet the criterion of subjective credibility” established by the Supreme Court, “but furthermore, it contradicts objective credibility.”
Judge Pilar Parejo has been a magistrate and judge for more than 26 years, and has served in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria since 1992;
In 2005 she was appointed head of the Second Section, in charge of, among other areas, processes for gender violence;
She became the first ever female in the Canary Islands to be elected president of the Provincial Court of Las Palmas, in 2008, overseeing all three islands of Las Palmas province, as the sixth ever woman in Spain to head up a provincial court;
She has for many years focused on reform of the judicial system, aiming to remove bureaucratic hurdles that can seriously slow down proceedings and prevent justice from being served.
She has been outspoken about the apparent increase in gender violence, particularly over recent years, among young people, and has strongly advocated for special protection for women, under the law, and the differentiation between “Domestic Violence” and “Gender Violence” which she has clarified is “always” focused against women.
The prosecutor, rejecting the versions provided by the defendants as contradictory and intended to evade responsibility for the acts they are accused of, argued that there is sufficient evidence to impose the requested penalties for the crimes of sexual assault. The defence attorneys opposed this assertion and have requested an acquittal.
In her statement, the alleged victim, of Nordic origin and 36 years of age at the time of the incident, recounted how one of the accused, A. L., had approached her while she was walking alone in the park near her apartment, after she had returned from a night out with friends. He greeted her and then, she told the court, he grabbed her arm, forcing her to accompany him to where the other three accused, all of Maghrebi origin, were gathered.
There, they began to talk and drink alcohol, to which she says she agreed “because I did not feel safe and decided to do it to avoid them becoming violent.”
It was then that the young men started touching her legs, and shortly after, she says, they made her lie down on blankets before taking turns to sexually assault her.
One of them is alleged to have raped her twice. “When the first one finished, I didn’t even have time to get up when the next one had arrived… I don’t remember in detail how the others were, but I know they penetrated me vaginally and anally,” she recounted in court with a trembling voice through an interpreter.
Persistent questions about the alcohol she consumed
During an examination that lasted more than two hours, the defence lawyers persistently questioned the woman’s intake of alcohol. She acknowledged that she drank at the party she had attended, but also stated that she was “fine” because it had been a “quiet” night.
She was pressed by her own lawyer on why she didn’t try to flee or scream for help, questions also repeated by the defendants’ representatives, and she explained that it “did not seem safe” given the situation she was in. “They didn’t say anything to me, but I felt intimidated because they kept moving me, spinning me around,” she told the court.
The defendants, however, each responding to their respective lawyers, categorically deny any sexual assault. One claims he was sleeping at the time, another said he had tried to mediate to prevent any sexual relations from occurring, and a third says he only hugged her.
One of the four individuals, whose DNA matched a sample found in the alleged victim’s vaginal swab, insists that sex had been consensual, and that at no point did she resist, and even that when a police vehicle had passed by the area where they were, he says, it was she who told them to stay still and not to worry.
Doubts raised about the medical reports
The defence lawyers also raised doubts regarding the medical evidence submitted, highlighting that the alleged victim’s medical report, issued from the health centre she went to after reporting to the Civil Guard – fully two days after the incident is said to have occurred – points to an acquittal.
A forensic expert, on the other hand, notes that there were bruises on the woman’s inner thighs and forearms.
It was this report that the Civil Guard investigators used, and upon which the prosecution based their accusations. The lawyer for A. L. was dismissive, saying that it appeared the only criterion for assessing whether the injuries existed or not was “to choose the report that most benefits their case.” Another lawyer emphasised that those bruises could just as easily have been caused by “dancing” at the party, prompting criticism from the Public Ministry representative who responded saying “I don’t even know how to interpret this defence strategy.”
Incrimination by Whatsapp
Another key piece of evidence presented by the prosecution lies in the language used in a series of WhatsApp messages sent from the mobile phone owned by the accused H.E.A.
In one message, according to the Guardia Civil, who translated from Arabic, the sender expresses happiness for having “caught” an “English girl,” and in another, they referred to a “little bunny.” However his lawyer cast doubt on whether those audios were actually from his client because the phone was being “used by everyone.”
There may too be some deliberation over whether this phrasing is clear evidence of malicious actions, or might instead be put down to ignorant machoism, or young male bravado.
The accused men were sought out, and arrested 48 hours after the assault is said to have occurred, after the woman reported to the Guardia Civil that a group sexual assault had taken place, according to initial press reports of the victim’s account, she had herself initially approached them, out of some sort of concern for their situation, while out walking in a park, in the Agua de La Perra area of Puerto Rico, near her home.
The alleged victim was first reported by Spanish press, erroneously, to be an Irish citizen, who has been residing on the south of Gran Canaria with her family for several years; further investigation revealed that she is in fact of Nordic origin. She knew the area well, surrounded by multiple apartments and neighbours in fairly close proximity, in a residential community that overlooks the park where the incident took place.
Agents say they initiated their official investigation after receiving the complaint (denuncia), in which she claimed that while walking alone through that park, at around 22:45, having been driven home following a night out with friends, that she engaged in a conversation with the small group of young men, of Maghrebi origin. At some point the group are accused of forcing themselves on her.
She told the court, this week, that after meeting the first young man, he brought her to the others, where they talked and drank, which she agreed to because, despite, in her own words, their having said nothing threatening to her, she “did not feel safe and decided to do it to avoid them becoming violent.” It was at this point that they began to touch her legs, she told the court, and that she was so intimidated that she did not resist or cry out or try to escape. She told the court that she was made to lie down, on blankets, before being assaulted by each of them in turn.
Two days later, on the Sunday, the alleged victim went to a healthcare centre, where a doctor examined her and issued a report detailing bruising that could be related to the incident; she subsequently filed the corresponding complaint. The investigator and head of the Judicial Police Unit in Arguineguín explained that the victim reported the incident on February 28, but they had already been looking into a possible group assault because the woman had gone to a pharmacy to buy the morning-after pill, and it had been the pharmacist who first decided to inform the Guardia Civil of a suspected incident.
Once the woman’s statement was officially filed with the Civil Guard, inquiries were made to identify the four alleged perpetrators, based on the physical description and account provided by the complainant, they went to the scene and proceeded to arrest the four men for the suspected crime of sexual assault. They were, it seems, found, by two Guardia Civil agents, in the very same park where they had been sleeping for several days prior and where the assault was reported to have occurred.
According a Civil Guard officer who investigated the case, Aziz L. had already been arrested once before as a suspect in another alleged sexual assault on Puerto Rico Beach.
For Aziz L., the prosecutor requests 61 years in jail, for two aggravated crimes of sexual assault (directly attributed to him) and three crimes of sexual assault (allegedly committed by his companions, in his presence). The other three defendants, Mohammed E.B., Hicham E.A., and Hamza E.Z., each face a sentence of up to 58 years in prison, requested by the prosecution, for the alleged crimes of aggravated sexual assault and four counts of sexual assault in their presence.
The prosecutor points out that the four accused individuals were, by their own admission, present at the scene of the incident, since they admitted to having been living in the park for several days after being expelled from the hotel where they were temporarily accommodated upon arrival to the island.
All four of the accused were, among thousands of others, in an irregular situation, having arrived by boat during the migrant crisis of 2020-2021, due to the Covid restrictions still current at the time that had prevented them from being processed as would normally be the case, travelling onwards, or being quickly returned to their country of origin, and so they had been temporarily sheltered in empty hotel accommodation before being subsequently expelled for bad behaviour.
Alcohol Is No Excuse
The court was told that the four homeless men, sleeping rough outdoors, in a strange town where there had been visible and vocal hostility from local residents over recent weeks, are accused of opportunistically carrying out a serious sexual assault, in a public park, and, unperturbed, that they remained there long enough to be arrested two days later.
The prosecutor relies on evidence of the only injuries found by the doctor who examined the complainant, which included bruises on both wrists, her inner thighs, and on one knee, saying they are “consistent with rape,” and the semen of one of the accused was confirmed by vaginal swab.
The head of the Arguineguín Judicial Police Unit stated that, in his opinion, the victim was in a state of “post-shock” and initially did not want to file a report, and that her version seemed to him “very credible”.
The defence, for the four accused men, totally reject the prosecutor’s conclusions, arguing that there is simply not sufficient evidence to prove any of the accusations, let alone justify a demand for such lengthy sentences.
Aziz L.’s attorney emphasised that the only valid evidence is what is presented in court, and that what happened just did not occur as alleged by the prosecutor or the supposed victim. He claimed that, based on the victim’s own admissions, she had been consuming alcohol, which, he said, could have led her to become uninhibited, “one of the known effects” it produces. The defendants insisted that the encounter was entered into consensually.
Furthermore, he stated that the methods used to identify the other three individuals accused had “contaminated” the evidence, since the victim had only been shown their three photographs, and not, as would usually be the case, a photo album with more possible options.
He stressed that the hospital’s medical report does not mention any rape-specific injuries, among other considerations, arguing that there is more than reasonable doubt about whether the serious crimes these men are accused of occurred at all as reported.
“It was consensual relations, and peripheral facts demonstrate this,” added the defence lawyer.
Proof Of Rape
The lawyer for Hicham E.A. pointed out that, in any case, the only conceivable crime that could be attributed to his client might have been failure to provide assistance, for not helping the victim if he thought she was in trouble, but certainly not rape.
The other two defence attorneys also emphasised a total lack of incriminating evidence, claiming that “she was indifferent” and the alleged victim’s attitude had been “do with me as you please.”
One defence lawyer emphasised that these encounters took place in the open, in a park, not in a private space, “lounge” or “stairwell”, in reference to another famous sexual assault, the Pamplona “La Manada” (“Pack”) case, which was heard before the Spanish Supreme Court in 2019, involving a group of men, including a soldier and a member of the Guardia Civil, who decided to drug and gang rape a young woman, filming it on their mobile phones; the defence in this case reiterated that not only was there no evidence of an attack in this incident, but the woman did not even “attempt to escape” or seek help.
The victim claims that on that day she had attended a birthday party, and returning to her apartment, she took a walk through the park, where, at around 10:45pm, she was initially approached by Aziz L., who took her by the hand and led her to a spot with blankets on the ground. Press reports originally stated that she had spoken with the men before she was forced to lie down, and was sexually assaulted, and her own testimony is that she spent some time talking to the group before, she says, they started to take advantage of her.
According to her account, they took her mobile phone and glasses. She maintains that Aziz L. was the first to penetrate her, followed by each of the other three, and that lastly Aziz L. penetrated her again. She says she was able to recognise him due to the strong smell of hashish or marijuana emanating from him.
In his closing statements, the prosecutor explained that his request for conviction is based on the credible and coherent testimony of the victim, as well as the accounts of two Civil Guard officers who, 48 hours or so later, arrived at the scene where the incident was said to have occurred, and proceeded to arrest the defendants. There is no suggestion that they tried to escape or resist arrest.
Other evidence was also presented. A verdict is expected soon.
Although a very different situation, this case has echos of a similar assault, for which four men were convicted last year, and sentenced to between three and a half, and eight and a half years, following multiple rape, and attempted theft, perpetrated against a Danish tourist, on Christmas day 2016. That attack was clearly caught on camera, as the assailants took turns to assault the victim, who was visibly worse for wear, and lay unconscious in a back service area of the Puerto Rico Shopping centre.