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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 22:02 GMT
Italy rape ruling draws criticism
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

The Supreme Court in Italy has ruled the rape of a young girl was a less serious offence because she was already sexually active.

The case involved the appeal of a 40-year-old man who had sexually abused his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter.

The ruling has been criticised by politicians and child-welfare agencies.

A lower court had ordered the man to serve three years and four months, but his appeal has so far lasted four years and he has yet to spend a day in jail.

On Friday Italy's highest court ruled the sentence was excessive, given the extenuating circumstances of the case.

'More developed'

In a written decision, which will now be sent back to the lower court in Cagliari for consideration, the five Supreme Court judges decided the rape of a minor was a more moderate offence if the child involved was no longer a virgin.

It's incomprehensible - I feel like I've been punched in the stomach
Maria Gabriella Moscatelli
Italian women's helpline

This girl comes from a socially-deprived background, they said, and her personality, from a sexual point of view, was more developed than one would normally expect of a child that age.

The ruling has brought a furious reaction from politicians and child-protection agencies across Italy.

Maria Gabriella Moscatelli, the president of a women's helpline called The Pink Telephone, said the decision had put her country back 50 years.

"It's incomprehensible," she said. "I feel like I've been punched in the stomach."

It was particularly hard to take, she added, given that in the last year her helpline had recorded three times as many allegations of sexual violence as in the previous year.

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