"Judicial shipwreck" ... housing estates in the Paris suburb of  Fontenay-sous-Bois, where the gang rapes took place.

"Judicial shipwreck" ... housing estates in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois, where the gang rapes took place. Photo: AFP

Ten French men have been acquitted and four have received short sentences over the gang rape of teenage girls in a trial described by one of the victims' lawyers as a "judicial shipwreck".

In a case that has shocked France and cast a light on a culture of youth sexual violence, two women now in their 20s said that as teenagers they had endured months of almost daily rapes by scores of men in Fontenay-sous-Bois, outside Paris. The case is seen as the tip of the iceberg of the wider problem of gang rapes by youths on poor estates.

After a four-week trial, four of the accused were found guilty of taking part in gang rapes but 10 were acquitted. Those found guilty were handed sentences that ranged from a three years' suspended sentence to one year in prison. Because of time already served on remand, only one man returned to prison after the verdict.

The sentences were much lighter than those recommended by the state prosecutor. The court found one of the women, identified as Nina, was raped, but did not uphold rape allegations in the case of the second, identified as Stephanie.

Clotilde Lepetit, one of the women's lawyers, described the sentencing as "a judicial shipwreck" for the women. She denounced what she called the extremely poor handling of the investigation and the judicial failings of the trial.

Another lawyer for the women, Laure Heinich, asked: "What sentence makes sense when one hears that gang rapists are given a three-year suspended sentence?"

The case has highlighted the problems in historic rape investigations where material evidence is lacking and much rests on the woman's word. Lawyers for the women said they felt the women's testimony had not been respected.

France's justice minister, Christiane Taubira, said there might be grounds to appeal. "I'm shocked by gang rapes, by every form of aggression against women and I think we have to create conditions so that the facts are established and those guilty can be effectively identified."

The minister for women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the case had shown that better education on sex and sexuality was needed in schools.

The Fontenay-sous-Bois attacks took place between 1999 and 2001. Nina said when she was 16, she was returning from a cinema when she was grabbed by a group of local youths, taken to a basement, raped and subjected to a series of brutal sex attacks.

The extremely violent, prolonged attacks continued daily, in carparks, stairwells, apartments, cellars and the empty playground of a local nursery school. She said there would be "at least 25" youths present during attacks in which she screamed, cried and vomited. One witness described 50 boys queuing to attack her.

Nina kept quiet about the attacks until 2005, when she was left unconscious by a brutal beating and told a police officer.

Psychiatric experts had said that both women were the victims of rape. Nina has put on 70 kilograms since the attacks, describing the weight gain as a shell behind which to hide. Stephanie attempted to kill herself a few days into the trial, which was held behind closed doors because the defendants were minors at the time of the rapes.

Guardian News & Media