ASHLEY Pittman is not and never has been a rapist. It took a jury just 41 minutes to decide that a girl who claimed otherwise - two whole years after the alleged event, which itself was four years ago - was telling a pile of porkies.

She made up the story, the jury seemed to conclude, to appease her Muslim boyfriend's fury that he had not been "the first". But whatever her reasons, it was an unspeakably vicious act on her part, with repercussions that rumble still.

Ashley, 22, was by all accounts - especially his tutors' - a brilliant student. Yet with this case hanging over him, he could not face his university or his studies, so he walked away; he and his shattered parents have had their entire lives put on hold, causing incalculable damage, on the whim of one stupid little dolly.

She, in my book, was the only criminal in this case. And yet, I cannot tell you who she was; indeed, I don't even know. Because as the players walked away from the court on Thursday, Ashley was destined to have his face plastered all over the papers - while she, the real culprit, wandered off clutching a teddy bear, completely protected by the anonymity she was granted in law.

I looked at Ashley's picture, and I remembered Austin Donellan, another student who was falsely accused of rape by another girl whose identity the law protects to this day.

I do not remember where that trial took place. I do not actually remember exactly when.

But I remember his name and I remember his face, with those anxious, bewildered, bespectacled eyes - just as you can be sure every potential girlfriend or employer has remembered ever since.

The innocent party, in cases like these, is the one who gets the life sentence.

In a week when the government announces plans to make it harder for the defence in a rape case, they might do well to remind themselves of the damage that such knee-jerk, politically correct provisions are already doing to young men like Ashley and Austin.

And the rest of us women might do well to ask ourselves: did we really need such provisions in the first place?

I do not believe that we are best served by sops that seek to place rape on a different plane from any and all other abusive, violent crime.

I find it ridiculous and insulting that if a man smashes a woman's limbs and face into a pulp, she must stand and accuse him in public...but if the assault is upon her rude bits, the entire system of British law turns on its head to allow her privacy.

In other words, the parts of us that define us as women are also the parts that define us as frail, helpless, blushing little virginal beasties, quite unable to stand up for ourselves within or without a courtroom.

Of course it's not fun giving evidence in a rape trial. Yet you have to do that whether you are named in the press or not. And it's not beyond the ken of our legislature, if they fancy changing laws here, to say that the evidence heard by a court may not - at the discretion of M'Lud - be reported by the press.

But to give to women the special "privilege" of being allowed to wreak havoc upon the lives of others, without even having to stand up and be counted, says nothing for progress, fairness or equality.

Instead, it harks back to a time when women were seen, on the surface at least, as creatures of utter fragility.

While underneath, as everybody knew, we were just witches on a witch-hunt.

-What do you think? Write to: Carol Sarler, Sunday People, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5AP.

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This Page was added on 3rd February, 2001