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The New York Times

She Says She Was Raped in Parliament. Now Her Case Is at Court.

CANBERRA, Australia — It was an accusation that seized the nation’s attention and sent shock waves through its political establishment.

Brittany Higgins, a former parliamentary aide, alleged that she had been raped by a colleague in Australia’s federal Parliament House in 2019. After she went public with her accusation early last year, other women came forward with stories of harassment in what they described as a boys-club culture in the nation’s capital. A wave of outrage followed, helping to oust the governing conservative coalition in national elections five months ago.

On Tuesday, Higgins’ allegation faced its first test in court, as the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting her, Bruce Lehrmann, began in the capital, Canberra, in one of Australia’s most closely watched court cases in years.

During the first day of the trial, which is expected to take four to six weeks, jurors heard Higgins’ account of waking up on a couch in the defense minister’s office, after a night of heavy drinking, to find Lehrmann on top of her. “I said no at least half a dozen times,” she said in a police interview played for the court. “He did not stop; he kept going.”

Lehrmann, who has pleaded not guilty, has consistently and strenuously denied that any sexual activity took place between him and Higgins on the night in question. His lawyer, Steven Whybrow, argued in his opening statement that inconsistencies in Higgins’ account had been overshadowed by a shift in the national conversation about violence against women.

The case, he said, epitomized the Mark Twain quote “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” adding that “this was a story whose time had come.”

Against the backdrop Whybrow was describing — the national and global #MeToo movement — the judicial system will now scrutinize behavior inside Australia’s insular and often unaccountable halls of power, with the prosecution expected to call a number of current and former government ministers and parliamentary staff members as witnesses.

From a legal perspective, it is a relatively straightforward criminal trial, said Julia Quilter, a law professor at the University of Wollongong. The sitting judge in the case has called it a “word against word” proceeding.

But on a symbolic level, Quilter said, “because Brittany Higgins has come to stand in for a certain sense of justice for female complainants more broadly, there’s quite a lot at stake in terms of the outcome of the matter.”

In the days and weeks following the news of Higgins’ allegation, several sitting members of Parliament were accused of sexual misconduct. Women and men who had worked for both major parties stepped forward to describe instances of sexual assault or harassment. And tens of thousands of women took to the streets to demand safety and respect.

“The momentum kept building, with sexual assault allegations in Parliament quickly emerging one after another,” said Louise Chappell, a political science professor at the University of New South Wales.

She described the effect as an “electoral gender-quake,” with widespread anger directed at the prime minister at the time, Scott Morrison, who said it had been a triumph that protesters were not “met with bullets,” as they would have been in other countries.

In its opening statement on Tuesday, the prosecution said it would make the case that Higgins was not conscious at the time that Lehrmann began intercourse with her, which left her unable to provide consent.

Shane Drumgold, the lawyer for the prosecution, said that Higgins was “extremely intoxicated” after her night out with colleagues. Lehrmann had suggested that he and Higgins share a cab home, Drumgold said, but they instead made a stop at Parliament House. There, he added, Higgins remembers entering the office of the defense minister, Linda Reynolds, for whom she and Lehrmann both worked.

The jury was shown an interview that Higgins conducted with the police in 2021, in which she said that she recalled falling asleep and then being woken up by a pain in her leg, caused by Lehrmann’s knee digging into her thigh. She then found Lehrmann on top of her, she said.

She said no, but he did not stop, she said. Once finished, “he looked at me, and then he left,” she added in the video recording. “I was crying for about the entire process,” she said.

Although she met with the police to describe what had happened, she did not proceed with a formal complaint because of fears for her job, the prosecution said. Drumgold read aloud a text message that Higgins sent to a friend that said, “If I want to maintain my job, I can’t talk about it.”

Higgins, in the police interview, detailed a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” in Parliament House. “Already, it was so ingrained in me, this culture of silence,” she said.

Reynolds has maintained that her office did not pressure Higgins to drop her case, but she apologized for the fact that Higgins had “felt unsupported.” Morrison also apologized to Higgins for the “terrible experiences” she had endured.

Last year, Higgins decided to reopen her case with the police and resigned from her job. Simultaneously, she went public with her allegations.

Lehrmann, 27, was charged in August 2021 with one count of sexual intercourse without consent. The maximum penalty for the charge is 12 years in prison.

On Tuesday, his defense urged the jury to consider Higgins’ credibility and reliability. In police interviews, she described events in general terms because, “in reality, as she told the police, she doesn’t really remember what happened,” Whybrow said.

The jury should also consider why Higgins participated in a television interview before having a formal evidence interview with the police, he added.

In sexual assault cases, it is often the complainant whose behavior is effectively put on trial and who is subject to intense cross-examination, said Sarah Maddison, a political science professor and the director of the Australian Center at the University of Melbourne.

“I think people will be looking keenly at this case to determine whether that pattern is being repeated again,” she said.

One challenge for both Lehrmann’s defense and the judge overseeing the trial will be separating Higgins’ allegation from the global #MeToo movement.

Justice Lucy McCallum, the sitting judge, told jurors on Tuesday that the trial had become something of a “cause célèbre,” adding that “it’s become a trial that has a momentum of its own.” She urged jurors who could not approach the case without bias to consider recusing themselves.

Whybrow said in his opening statement that when Higgins went to the media, “this unstoppable snowball started to roll down the mountain, picking up speed and becoming an avalanche that could not be stopped by something as mundane or inconvenient as, in this particular case, the fact that the allegations were not true.”

The new national conversation about violence against women is important, he told the jury, “but this verdict in no way affects the conversation, the reforms, the discussions, the focus that is now finally and appropriately being turned on these issues.”

View original article on nytimes.com


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