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Elite French police on trial in alleged rape of Canadian tourist

Joël Saget, AFP | File photo taken on April 25, 2014, shows the street sign of the Quai des Orfèvres in Paris, where the Paris criminal investigation department headquarters are located.

Two elite police officers go on trial in Paris on Monday, five years after a Canadian tourist alleged they raped her at the judicial police’s prestigious headquarters in the heart of the French capital after a late-night encounter at a nearby pub.

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It was a scandal that rocked the elite police unit at the centre of the allegations. Five years on, the officers’ trial will take place just steps from the alleged scene of the crime, in the courthouse adjacent to the storied 36, quai des Orfèvres, an address synonymous in France with popular crime fiction and the real-life home for more than a century to Paris’s judicial police, who investigate major crimes. Those offices, on the Ile de la Cité near Notre-Dame, were relocated to northern Paris in 2017.

On the night of April 22, 2014, Canadian tourist Emily Spanton made the acquaintance of a group of off-duty police officers at Le Galway, a quayside Irish pub across the Seine from the headquarters where they worked. After midnight, a pair of officers from the elite anti-gang brigade invited a heavily inebriated Spanton back to the office for a late-night tour. One of the policemen, Antoine Q., ferried the then-34-year-old over by car while a second, Nicolas R., joined them on foot.

The daughter of a Toronto police officer, Spanton would later tell investigators, “I had had a lot to drink. I couldn’t see myself going back to the hotel in that state and I thought that, going to a police station, I’d feel safer.” But the Canadian visitor would exit the building at around 2am in tears, barefoot and no longer wearing her tights, alleging she had been raped by four policemen, an account she later revised to at least three.

The two officers on trial, now aged 40 and 49, deny raping Spanton: Nicolas R. has said she performed oral sex on him, an act he claims was consensual and did not involve ejaculation, while Antoine Q., after initially denying any sexual relations with the Canadian, eventually said he did engage consensually in manual sexual touching in the car. (The officers’ full names have been withheld under a French law that protects the anonymity of law enforcement officers associated with certain services and units for security reasons.)

Forensics, meanwhile, revealed gynaecological trauma on the alleged victim and DNA from both of the accused on her underwear as well as her DNA mixed with Antoine Q’s own DNA on two pairs of his underwear. The investigation found that text messages and videos had been erased from the officers’ mobile phones, but one compromising text message was discovered on the phone of the colleague who received it that night at 1am. The message, sent by Nicolas R., appeared to indicate the officer felt a woman he was with was inclined to orgies and entreated the colleague to “hurry up”. Investigators did not find a match for a third person’s DNA found on Spanton’s underwear despite comparing it with samples taken from more than 100 judicial police officers.

Still, investigating magistrates in 2016 initially had the case dismissed, citing “incoherencies” in Spanton’s account, including her confusion over whether there were three or four assailants, and saying her remarks when questioned were “often defensive”. During the investigation, some experts expressed reservations over taking Spanton at her word alone. Toxicology reports, meanwhile, found the Canadian had consumed anti-depressants, opiates and cannabis, in addition to the large amounts of alcohol. In 2017, after the public prosecutor’s office and civil parties appealed, a court overturned the dismissal and sent the officers to trial.

Spanton, for her part, has told the Toronto Star newspaper that she “was in no state to give consent” on the night of her alleged rape. “We need to be having a societal conversation about what actual consent is,” she told the newspaper.

In the face of a multitude of physical evidence, Spanton’s Paris-based lawyer says, this trial will be a trial about consent. “Of course there will be the clichés about rape that will be debated,” Sophie Obadia told Europe 1 radio on Monday. “Can a woman alone, in Paris, walk around and live as she likes, come and go dressed in a feminine way? Does she have the right to drink? Can she freely consent when she wants to and say no when she doesn’t want to and be considered at that moment a victim? That’s the question.”

The Toronto Star, citing Spanton's Toronto-based lawyer, highlighted stark differences between sexual assault investigations in Canada and France. A French investigating magistrate and two police officers travelled from Paris to Canada to interview Spanton’s family, friends and current and former partners to probe her credibility. In 2015, Spanton was required to return to Paris for a French judicial proceeding known as a “confrontation” in which she came face to face with the accused in the presence of a judge, a process Spanton’s Paris-based lawyer says “amplified her trauma”.

The trial is due to run for three weeks through February 1. If found guilty, the officers could face up to 20 years in prison.

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