Seeking freedom for a rape victim who killed his attacker

Criminal sanctions for rape in Israel amount to a few years in prison at best. Yonatan Heilo – an Ethiopian immigrant and rape victim who lives outside the Israeli consensus – will now spend most of his adult life behind bars. He deserves our moral support despite the court’s blind eye.

By Naama Katiee (translated from Hebrew by Osnat Hadar)

Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by men. Most of the victims are women. When the victims are not women, they are usually children or disadvantaged people.

In 2010 Yonatan Heilo, a 23-year-old Israeli man of Ethiopian descent with no criminal record, killed Yaron Ilin – his two-time rapist – in self defense, a minute before he could rape him yet again. Ilin, a felon convicted of raping an underage girl, blackmailed Heilo and threatened him over a long period of time. Although the court acknowledged Heilo as a victim of sexual assault, he was sentenced to 20 years incarceration for murder. He is currently serving his sentence in Shita Prison in the North, awaiting his appeal hearing, which is scheduled for December 1, 2014. A widespread public campaign for Heilo’s release has been taking place ahead of the hearing.

Contrary to common belief, sexual assaults are not about lust – they are all about exploitation, debasement, humiliation, power and control. Sexual assault is about domination, usually by men. The abusers re-establish their control over space and resources – that is how they identify who is worthless and who is equal to them, who is their “resource” and who is a person. Rape relates to sex the way severe beating relates to hand-shaking: there is no connection.

It becomes more and more evident that the justice system doesn’t know how to handle sexual assault. Its awkwardness, the insensitivity toward the victim, the basic misapprehension of the victim’s mental state – all that brings about the shocking manner in which the system conducts itself. Sometimes it seems that the justice system doesn’t help the victims and only enhances their pain, perpetuating the same balance of power that led to this terrible reality in the first place.

The judge that sentenced Yonatan Heilo to 20 years in prison made some serious mistakes.

The first mistake was saying that defending yourself in case of a rape is allowed only up to a certain point. It is true that rapists don’t deserve to be put to death, but a victim who is confronted by his abuser and defends himself from specific abuse should be tried according to the rule, “kill or be killed.” A rape victim who acts in his own defense, defends himself not only from the immediate assault, but from a lifelong inner death.

The second mistake is the assumption and expectation of the victim to behave as a “reasonable person” and the conclusion that Heilo’s reaction wasn’t proportional. Such a conclusion could be valid if it was a struggle or dispute between equals. The assumption that a rape victim can and should behave as a “reasonable person” is a perverse one. A rape victim, especially a victim of rape and prolonged abuse, is a defeated, humiliated person, physically and mentally wounded, a person who was robbed of his freedom. The symmetry was not distorted when Heilo killed his rapist, it was distorted long before that when Heilo was assaulted, blackmailed and raped. The court which treats Heilo as a “reasonable person,” ignores the fact that the reality of Heilo’s life, which was created and maintained by the abuser and the justice system itself, was unreasonable and disproportionate to begin with.

The third mistake is determining that since Heilo “never complained,” he apparently “didn’t suffer enough” — not enough to justify killing his abuser moments before he could abuse him again. The court expects a rape victim to trust the system to defend him. But Heilo, who saw his abuser roam free, still terrifying the neighbors – even after he was convicted of raping a minor, blackmailing and making threats – could not trust such a system to help him.

The court does not err “just like that.” We’re talking about a fundamental inability to understand and deal with sexual assault, because the whole system is unable to understand the issue and the environment.

Only a few years ago an Israeli court acquitted Shai Dromi, a farmer who was a victim of recurrent thefts. Dromi shot and killed a thief who trespassed his property. In this case, the court accepted his argument that he “feared for his life,” although there was no such immediate threat. In fact, the thieves were not even on his property and he shot them as they were fleeing the scene. The court was able to “understand” a struggle between two powerful people – the landowner and the robber. But the court cannot understand a situation that involves a powerful man and a submissive and humiliated one. The court cannot imagine a situation in which a liberal reality (even an imagined one) of “equality, justice and liberty” does not exist. Heilo does not live in a “normal” reality, but in a no man’s land – he’s a black immigrant, a rape/blackmail/abuse victim who lives outside the social, economic and ethnic consensus. This no-man’s land was created not only by the rapist, but mainly by an indifferent social and governmental system that turns a blind eye. Only those who live in a no-man’s land know that resisting and escaping such a world cannot be done in a reasonable and proportionate way.

While most rapists are incarcerated for a few years at best, Yonatan Heilo will spend most of his adult life behind bars. Why did the judges rule so severely against Heilo? Was it because he killed his abuser? Or may because he decided at that moment to rise up against the terrifying reality – his blackmailing rapist, the impotent system which gave him no hope for change. Yonatan Heilo decided to rescue himself in the most immediate and radical way from the no-man’s land that was created by the system. How can it be that at that precise moment, when the victim decided to take back control, the system chose to intervene? Could it be that the system choses to enter the no-man’s land only when someone tries to escape it?

Yonatan Heilo should be supported by anyone who sees and understands that our reality is not egalitarian, and even terrifying for those who live in the margins of society. But Heilo especially deserves women’s support, because they experience this terrifying reality everyday. A justice system that sentences Yonatan Heilo to 20 years in jail is a system that deserves to exist only in one place – Sodom and Gomorrah.

Naama Katiee is an activist and a member of the organization Amram. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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