The issue of eliminating the statute of limitations on sex crimes has come up for public debate in recent years with increasing frequency. It was discussed in the context of the Alon Kastiel case, as well as in the case of former President Moshe Katsav, and now again in the wake of the revelations about Yehuda Meshi-Zahav that were detailed in Haaretz’s investigative report last week.
Such cases and similar ones make it clear that the statute of limitations protects sex offenders, and this is no longer acceptable, if it ever was. It’s problematic both because it poses a significant obstacle that prevents victims from complaining – as was well explained by attorney Ayelet Razin Bet Or, legal adviser of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel – and because it provides sex offenders with a means of defense.
All these cases prove the degree to which this law is distorted. There were 14 complaints filed with police against Kastiel, in addition to other testimonies that media outlets and aid organizations had collected. One count of rape had to be immediately removed from the indictment because more than 10 years had passed since the alleged offense had occurred. Kastiel was convicted under a plea agreement of four counts of sexual assault, but not rape, and was sentenced to the ridiculous sentence of four years and nine months.
In Katsav’s case the indictment contained offenses that he’d committed against three complainants. Another woman whose complaint was too old was not included. Katsav was convicted of rape, but was acquitted of those crimes that were subject to the statute of limitations. Justice Edna Arbel noted in the Supreme Court’s decision in Katsav’s appeal that the stories told by those complainants whose claims were subject to the statute of limitations had strengthened the claims made by those whose cases had not expired, but didn’t dare call for doing away with the statute of limitations on the earlier allegations.
Given the awful testimonies against Meshi-Zahav, the police focus on finding cases that are not subject to the statute of limitations is outrageous, highlights the absurdity of the situation, and boosts the grievances against the authorities. Despite the dozens of testimonies, it’s possible that no charges will be filed if no case recent enough is found. How long the statute of limitation lasts depends on the allegations, the age of the victim, and other factors.
One of the primary reasons given for justifying the statute of limitations is that a delay in filing a complaint constitutes a waiver of a right. But unlike other crimes, when it comes to sex crimes a reluctance to file a complaint is an inherent part of the offense. Sexual assault undermines basic feelings of personal security, dignity and autonomy.
Unlike other types of trauma, sexual assault is very often accompanied by deep isolation, fear, denial, self-blame and shame. Often the victim hides the crime for a long time and after it’s revealed he or she is left without social or family support. The feeling of having been harmed by such offenses is intense, usually lasts for the rest of the victim’s life, and is expressed in all aspects of their lives. The fact that more than 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows clarifies the difficulty victims have reporting to the authorities.
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We cannot accept a situation in which sex offenders aren’t prosecuted simply because an arbitrary period of time has passed. If there is evidence, the suspect should be prosecuted. In Australia, Canada and Great Britain there is no statute of limitations on serious sex offenses. In the United States, Congress has eliminated the statute of limitations on sex crimes against minors. It’s sad and aggravating that in Israel, even in cases of serial sex offenses that take place over many years – as in the cases of Kastiel and Katsav, and as is claimed in the case of Meshi-Zahav – the law hasn’t been amended to halt a situation that shields sex offenders.
Michal Rozin has served as a Meretz lawmaker and as chairman of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.