Yonatan Hailu was convicted of murdering his rapist, Yaron Eileen, and sentenced to 20 years in prison because his actions did not meet the “reasonable person” standard. Did the judges not only hear but really listen to his testimony? Did they take his trauma into account? Did they understand that his soul was murdered, over and over, by being raped twice?
By Sharon Mayevski (Translated from Hebrew by Maya Naveh and Michelle Bubis)
The Lod District Court sentenced Yonatan Hailu – a 24-year-old man convicted of murdering Yaron Eileen in Netanya in 2010 – to 20 years in prison. Hailu claims that he was raped twice by Eileen and acted in self-defense. Before his death, Eileen had been tried for raping an under-age girl, property crimes, extortion and assaulting police officers. Hailu is described in the court ruling as a man with a normative lifestyle and no criminal record. Discounting his Ethiopian origin, neighborhood of residence, family background and the fact that he is the victim of a sexual offence, he could be a classic “guy from a good home”..No, wait… “guys from good homes” are a different story.
Hailu, who admitted to the murder, was imprisoned for two years until Supreme Court Justice Edna Arbel decreed, in an appeal, that he should be released under house arrest and that his claim of self-defense should be taken seriously. In September 2013, the District Court rejected the claim of self-defense and ruled that when Hailu and Eileen happened to meet that night, Hailu, steeped in alcohol, took advantage of a moment when Eileen turned his back to him and strangled him, and then made sure he was dead by throwing a stone at his head several times. The judges added that although they accepted Hailu’s claim that he feared Eileen because of the acts of sodomy (i.e., rape and extortion) against him, and also acknowledged Hailu’s resulting emotional distress, the defendant fully understood his actions. When finding him guilty, in September, the judges wrote that Hailu had reached a decision to murder Eileen, had prepared for the act while performing it, and had carried out the murder with no provocation on Eileen’s behalf. The prosecutors thereby proved that the three conditions required for conviction of murder in Israeli law had been met: preparation, decision to cause death, and lack of provocation.
As soon as I finished reading the verdict, I went back to Judith Lewis Herman’s excellent book Trauma and Recovery. There, she writes: “Psychological trauma is an affiliation of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities.”
Bearing in mind the depth of emotional trauma that follows sexual abuse, I would like to stress two points regarding the court ruling.
The first has to do with the term “suppressed testimony,” mentioned several times in the ruling. A suppressed testimony is one that the witness withholds and discloses only at a later stage. The Supreme Court has ruled that suppressed testimony is of little value and may be unreliable. But anyone familiar with the psychological, educational or academic aspects of sexual violence knows that suppressed testimony is a telling symptom of sexual trauma. In fact, show me how a testimony was “suppressed” for years and I’ll show you the kind of sexual abuse that took place. The court naturally seeks orderly, coherent, reliable testimony; yet inherent to the way in which sexual abuse influences victims’ minds is the creation of time gaps and, more than anything, an urge to suppress, hide, and deny.
Suppressing testimony is, therefore, almost an obvious reaction to sexual abuse. Instead of being well-organized, reliable and believable, the testimony of a sexual abuse victim follows a different order. First, there is the abuse itself, dissociation and detachment from it, and possible obliteration of its memory. Later, the victim experiences flashbacks, fragments of memory, and occasional nightmares. Did it happen or did it not? Did it happen this way or that way?
When do all of these come together to form a coherent narrative that can be presented to another person – a friend, an interrogator, a judge? Sometimes, immediately after the event. But in most cases, years go by until all the fragments can be put together to form a cohesive picture of the event. That’s why the question, “why did it take you so many years to complain?” is fundamentally wrong. It took me so many years to complain because before that, I didn’t know what had happened to me, I didn’t believe myself, I couldn’t tell the story. I didn’t dare, because how can I show you a completed jigsaw puzzle when the pieces of the story and the pieces of my soul refuse to come together?
Here’s another example of how the court ruling relies on an objective stance that misunderstands or overlooks the trauma and its implications:
In this case, even though it is understandable that the defendant was afraid of the deceased, he could have handled the situation in various ways, and his feeling of ‘no way out’ does not meet the Reasonable Person standard. The defendant had several options for dealing with the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the deceased, the first of these being an appeal to the relevant authorities – an option that the reasonable person can be expected to choose. The deceased’s provocative acts, which included a financial demand, a threat, and turning his back to the accused, were not severe enough to trigger a response in the reasonable person such as the defendant exhibited. Even if I were to assume, in the defendant’s favor, that remarks of a sexual nature were added and that the defendant was thus reminded of the deceased’s abuse, this would not suffice to determine that the provocation was severe to the extent that most people, in similar circumstances, would have experienced difficulty refraining from the lethal path taken by the defendant.
The court had already accepted Yonatan Hailu’s testimony about the sexual abuse inflicted upon him by Yaron Eileen. In that case, what does the “Reasonable Person” standard have to do with it? Sexual assault transports the abused person from the world of reason to an irrational world of hell, and therefore requires a different criterion of reasonableness. I am not suggesting that murder is a plausible solution, but I would like to see it more widely understood that emotional trauma caused by sexual violence is like murder; only, instead of passing on to another world, the victim continues to walk the face of the earth, while his or her vital systems – the ability to function, feel control, connect with other people, find meaning – crumble apart. You remain flesh and blood, a man or a woman who once had a reasonable life; yet how reasonable is your future? No-one knows.
I propose a slightly different narrative for the murder. I want us to look differently at Yonatan Hailu, a man whose soul was murdered when he was raped, and then raped again, months before the event. That last encounter with Eileen must have sent him to the brink of the abyss. Hailu was terrified, knowing that the next rape was only minutes away. He knew that the third assault was just a matter of time. How did he know? The reasonable person who has been repeatedly raped, by the same attacker, knows. Hailu could not endure a third murder of his soul, so he killed Eileen before it happened.
In the closing scene of “Thelma and Louise” when the two women are in the car on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Harvey Keitel’s cop character yells at his boss: “How many times has that woman gotta be fucked over?” That woman is Louise, who shot and killed the man who had raped Thelma before her eyes.
So I ask: How many times does that have to happen to Yonatan Hailu?
I hope that Yonatan Hailu receives public support and I hope that feminist organizations fight for him. Above all, I hope that he appeals to the Supreme Court and that the court reconsiders his punishment – this time taking into account that he was murdered twice before committing murder himself.
This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.