Apr 23, 2015

Erin Helfert

Source: Chime Original

BY Erin Helfert

I

            Living and working in Morocco was the culmination of a long and arduous academic, professional, and personal journey. Since the age of ten, I’ve had a deep interest in the Kingdom and each project, from academia to career pursuits, led me back to Morocco.  My work focuses on Gender-based Violence and Justice Reform in the all over the world and in Morocco, I have worked relentlessly in the major urban areas of the country.

I am the first American to have ever had her rape case heard in a Moroccan court and to have gained conviction. Over a five-year period,  I engaged in an international legal and personal struggle that has forever bonded me to the broader struggle against sexual violence in Morocco, the US, and the broader, global stage.

II

In the morning of January 1, 2009, I awake in the guest room of a house I know well. My head pounds and I feel an overall confusion. As my eyes adjust to the soft, pink glow of sunrise, vivid flashes of terrifying memories begin to seep into my brain.  I look down at my body.

I feel like I have become a decapitated organism.  From above, I see a bruised, naked body, bite marks covering my chest.  I feel a throbbing pain at the back of my throat, in my inner thighs, in between my legs. The woolen dress I wore to the gathering the night before is now bunched around my waist. My striped underwear and my black hosiery have been pulled down to my knees.

This place, it was everything I had worked for.  And now, here I am,

merely another victim to add to the numbers and country reports,  another sad photo to add to neglected files.  Once an observer hovering over my research, I’m now among them, just another politicized statistic. This country, this body once so familiar and intriguing to me now feels foreign and frightening.

III

In the early hours of that wretched day, I was violently raped by a Moroccan citizen while at a gathering held in a US diplomat’s residence. The diplomat, a commercial counselor, was a friend of mine, and I had been to his house on several occasions.  However, in response to my request for help, he said, “If I were you, I’d ask myself what I could have done to prevent this from happening to me.”  The irony of first becoming a victim, and second being castigated for being so, enraged me.

However, the Moroccan authorities did take on my case, And, in February of 2009, after many hearings, flights, self-defense initiatives and constant self-advocacy, I gained a conviction in my case.

Erin Helfert photo 2

IV

Fast forward five years and on January 28th  2014, I am approaching the Court of Appeals in Casablanca for what is to be the final hearing in my case.  For five years, I’ve returned to this city where I once lived and worked, to attend the proceedings.  Countless times, I’ve had to repeat the details of my rape before a room full of strangers, often into a microphone, the speakers blaring to a crowded courtroom audience.

That  morning, the court heard several cases of varying level of gravity in rapid succession.  The case before mine is a hooliganism charge.  The one after, a property dispute.  I am not Moroccan, not African, while I wait my turn in the general courtroom audience, everyone stares, and I stare back.   Perhaps we are heaping our assumptions, our unfortunate stereotypes, upon one another.  Perhaps they are just concerned with the case that they came to hear that day.

Two women and two children come and sit next to me.  I recognize them from the previous hearings. It is the wife, son, and daughter of the man who raped me. The children’s stares bore into my right profile.  The wife approaches me, begging for a chance to talk, to plead her husband’s case. I am called up to the tribunal amid the chaos.

The court-appointed defense lawyer for the perpetrator attempts to break apart my story for the sixth or seventh time. He says that the man wasn’t allowed to enter the part of the house where I was raped. He states that he doesn’t have enough information on the crime. He claims that DNA evidence “corrodes” after one week.  He requests a postponement of the hearing.  When this is translated for me, I defiantly say, “No,” addressing the lawyer directly.  I am quickly hushed by the court officials.  “You do not have the right to address anyone but the head of the tribunal
!” they say.  But I stand my ground, repeating that I had been present at every hearing for five years. Yet, the tribunal relents to the defense lawyer.

“Come back in two days for the next hearing,” they say quickly before the next case is called.

I can’t believe what is happening. Two days! After all this time, this travel, this shame, this pain, this stony facade I’ve had to present and carry! Today was supposed to be the final hearing. Today I was supposed to have justice.

I walk away from the front of the court.  Everyone in the audience stares.  They have heard everything.  Up until that point, I had never once cried, never allowed emotion to enter into my testimony. I withheld all my outward feelings during five appearances in the foreign court.  Why would I show vulnerability? Why would I let them see me weak? But as I walk out of the court room, I begin to shake, tears welling up in my eyes.  I am eerily silent, even within.

I exit the courhouse and walk down the long stairway. But halfway down the stairs, without a veil of cool rationale, I suddenly stop, “No! I can’t!”

I bound up the stairs back towards the courtroom. What do I hope to accomplish? Was I going to enter the courtroom and demand justice?  I don’t have a plan.  I don’t care. All I know is that I can’t leave now, not after all this.

A guard grabs my arm.  “Madame.  Please.  Calm down,” he says to me in French. I begin to weep hot, salty tears. I try to push my way past him, but eventually my inability to see stops me. Through blurred vision, I see two older women walking towards me: veiled heads, djellabahs, soft faces.  I feel sure that they are from the perpetrator’s family, coming to scorn me as had happened before.  But, no.

These women had seen and heard my case as part of the courtroom audience.  The women push past the guard, and put their hands to my chest, and said to me in Morrocan Arabic, “It is ok.  Just two more days.  Jouj
!” They hold their fingers in a V to illustrate the number two. They touch their fingers to my chest softly, repeatedly.  “You are doing this for all of us
.  Just two more days.”

What these women give me then is something I have received from no one else in over five years : honest compassion, dignity, and strength. I submit body and heart to their kindness.  I feel no shame, only their hands on my face now, wiping my tears.   This is the Morocco I love.

On 30 January, two days later, I face those stairs again.  And step by step, I walk towards my triumph, the words of the women etched in my mind.

V

This case set four main legal precedents, in Morocco, the US, and globally.  1) I am the first US Citizen to ever have taken a rape case through the criminal justice system in Morocco and to have gained a conviction.  2) Mine is the first sexual violence case in Morocco in which the Court system allowed forensic (DNA) evidence for consideration.  3) In response to my many requests, the judge offered a free, court-appointed lawyer and translator for my previous hearing in light of my inability to afford legal counsel throughout this case.  Despite the constitutional right for both parties to receive free court-appointed legal representation, in reality, free, court-appointed representation is provided only to the defendant in rape cases.  4) The Tribunal handed down a record-setting sentence in my case. The perpetrator was sentenced to six years in prison, three times the maximum penalty for rape in Morocco.

He remains there to this day. Throughout my five year campaign, this case became more than a search for justice.  I experienced the dramatic irony in becoming the very subject of my research. I learned first hand what it’s like to be a survivor of Gender-based Violence domestically and abroad. I realized quickly that most of what I had learned and even claimed as the proper method for curbing Gender-Based Violence and reforming justice systems were ideological at best.

The reality in Morocco is this: rape happens every day, and only 6% of these (reported) cases ever gain a conviction. In the world, one-in-three women, and one-in-six men will experience Gender-based Violence in her lifetime.

I work so that the precedent set in my case becomes the norm. In a legal context in which a survivor faces nearly insurmountable obstacles, the justice afforded to me in Morocco, and the North and Sub Saharan African region at-large should not turn into a one-off exception.

 

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