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Rape case sparks furor

Like many rapes, it happened at night and at knifepoint. "It was a time of degradation, complete degradation," the woman recalled.

Unlike many rapes, the victim went to the police. She testified and a jury believed her. Heros Hakopian, a restorer of antiques, was convicted last August of aggravated rape, aggravated indecent assault and kidnapping.

There the sordid case of Queen v. Hakopian normally would have ended. But it has exploded instead into a storm of anger and outrage in the most staid of Australian states, Victoria, touching a raw public nerve.

The reason: The judge who sentenced Hakopian to 16 months in prison, and the state Supreme Court that increased it to 30 months, did so with a caveat. The woman was a prostitute, and under a 1981 case cited by a panel of all-male judges, "prostitutes suffer little or no sense of shame or defilement" when raped.

Under the same ruling, raping a prostitute is "not as heinous as when committed on a happily married woman," nor does it cause "a reaction of revulsion which it might cause in a chaste woman."

Whatever the merits of that reasoning, a number of emotional issues _ including accusing women of encouraging rape, maligning or discrediting victims because of their sexual history, and considering rape less grave a crime when committed against prostitutes _ go international this week.

Justice Elizabeth Evatt, president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, will raise those troubling topics before the annual meeting of a United Nations committee overseeing the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Australia signed in 1984. The meeting ends Friday.

"The idea that it is a less serious offense to commit rape against a prostitute is a dangerous concept for the law to take up," Evatt, a member of the committee, said in a phone interview from New York. "It suggests that one category of people is less entitled to the protection of the law than another."

For the 200 women who demonstrated outside the Victoria Supreme Court earlier this month, and the hundreds more who wrote angry letters to local newspapers and jammed phone-in shows, that's putting it mildly.

"You wouldn't believe the judges in the Supreme Court could be so stupid," said Dr. Jocelynn Scutt, a lawyer and author of books on violence against women. "It just shows how arrogant they are, how out of touch with reality they are."

"It's just the latest case of judicial sexism," said Lea Corbett, spokeswoman for the Federation of Community Legal Centers. "It raises concerns that the law and the police make distinctions between "good' and "bad' women, and "deserving' and "undeserving' women."

Other controversial cases include two highly publicized rape convictions that were overturned on technicalities. And in 1990, a convicted rapist was given an 18-month sentence after pleading guilty to raping and assaulting a prostitute.

"The offense of rape on this occasion savored more of the offense of dishonesty than of a sexual offense," the county court judge, Graham Fricke, said at the time. "You agreed to pay the prostitute for oral sex, and you exceeded the terms of your agreement by demanding vaginal sex."

Public anger against such rulings led to a yearlong review of rape laws by the state's Law Reform Commission. Last November, the group issued detailed recommendations to Parliament to increase penalties, clarify definitions of consent and improve treatment of rape victims.

The state attorney general has asked the commission to examine the Hakopian case as well. But David Brereton, a law professor and consultant on rape to the commission, said the toughest challenge is to change attitudes in the male-dominated legal fraternity. Every one of the 46 county court judges and 25 state Supreme Court judges, who hear all appeals and murder trials, is male.

"There's a real problem of confidence in the judiciary by women," said Brereton.