The trial of a sailing coach accused of raping a child has opened in Athens, as Greece’s #MeToo movement finally reached the justice system.
The hearing was viewed as a milestone before it even began in a nation that has long lagged behind other EU member states in punishing alleged sexual abuse.
“Today’s trial is very symbolic,” said Sofia Bekatorou, the Olympic champion whose own accusation of rape against a senior member of the Hellenic Sailing Federation was seen as a turning point last year. “I am here to support her [the alleged victim] in every way. She is a very brave young woman. It’s never an easy process.”
In the 12 months since Bekatorou went public with her allegation, scores of other women have come forward to file complaints about their own experiences, ending what the Mediterranean country’s first female president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, would call a “conspiracy of silence” around the issue of sexual assault. Some have described themselves as being underage when the alleged incidents occurred.
The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, will, it is hoped, encourage others to speak up, said Bekatorou, who is scheduled to testify as a witness for the prosecution when it resumes later this month.
The recipient of a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the sailing champion is now 44. She was 21, she says, when she was pinned down and sexually abused by the Federation official. The executive, who denies the allegation, has since resigned.
The Olympian has attributed the twin sentiments of guilt and shame to stopping her from speaking out earlier. More than two decades later, Greece’s statute of limitations has meant justice can no longer be rendered.
Last year the government of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has praised Bekatouros for her candour, overhauled legislation that will not only extend the time limit for legal action against those accused of abusing minors but ensure tougher penalties for crimes involving sexual assault.
It has also established a 24-hour helpline for victims, expanded a network of shelters for those seeking refuge and created an online platform to allow incidents to be reported in real time.
Wednesday’s proceedings set the tone for when judges reconvene on 26 January.
Testifying before the bench, the Greek sailing coach denied the accusation that he had instigated several, non-consensual sexual encounters with the athlete who was then under his stewardship.
Choosing to identify himself in a newspaper interview last year, Triantafyllos Apostolou stunned Greeks by also admitting he had been “in love” with the girl, who was an 11-year-old when the abuse allegedly took place. “We were to be married and her mother had agreed,” he told the Proto Thema newspaper.
The prosecution has accused the coach of using “psychological violence against the minor” to stop her telling her parents what had happened. The Greek daily quoted him as telling a magistrate that he had begun to have sexual relations with “my athlete … from the beginning of 2012”.
On Wednesday, judges ruled that the woman, who is now 22 and a prominent member of Greece’s national sailing team, could give her own account of events behind closed doors as a protective measure because of her age.
Speaking outside the courtroom, the athlete, who has requested that her name not be disclosed, also said that she hoped the trial would encourage others to come forward.
“It’s a painful procedure,” she told reporters. “We are still at the beginning but we are a family and we are here to fight, altogether and for all the others who follow and I hope will follow.”
Bekatourou played an active role in bringing the alleged victim, with her consent, to the attention of prosecutors 12 months ago.
“When there is no way for someone to pay for the crimes he has committed, it is very difficult for the victim,” she said on Wednesday. “Through her trial we are vindicating all the other women, all [those] who are victims and have suffered violence.”
The hearing comes against a backdrop of a marked rise in domestic violence attributed to the pandemic and accentuated by a rash of femicides that have also shocked Greece.
In a society long associated with a macho culture, especially in rural areas where traditional mores hold sway, feminist groups said the trial’s outcome will be decisive in encouraging victims of abuse to seek justice.