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“I’ve been through an indescribable hell — the worst 4,000 days of my life”

A Dutchman who has spent 11 years in jail for rape hopes he will soon be released

The UK has confirmed that DNA found at the scene belongs to a convicted British murderer

Left: Romano van der Dussen before he entered prison in September 2003. Right: Briton Mark Dixie.
Left: Romano van der Dussen before he entered prison in September 2003. Right: Briton Mark Dixie.

For the last 4,268 days and nights, Dutchman Romano Liberto van der Dussen has been hounded by the term “rapist.” He has been called a monster, a sexual predator, a son-of-a-bitch, a piece of shit and a beast. He’s been told that he does not deserve to live.

During the 11-and-a-half years that he has spent inside Spanish prisons, he has suffered countless beatings, insults and threats from other inmates (“you’re going to die, bitch”), and spent several months in isolation for his own safety.

Life in jail is never easy, but even less so when you’re in for raping defenseless women. The ethics of prison life consider this an unacceptable crime.

And yet Van der Dussen never tried to rape three women in Fuengirola (Málaga) in the early morning of August 10, 2003 – charges that nevertheless earned him a 15-and-a-half-year sentence. The real culprit was a British man named Mark Dixie.

“I have seen people get stabbed, others commit suicide, others get raped over unpaid debts...”

The Spanish police have known this since 2007, and British authorities have just confirmed it with a new DNA sample. And there’s more. Dixie himself recently admitted that he was probably involved in the sexual assaults, and offered to cooperate.

Despite all that, Van der Dussen remains behind bars. He was jailed at the age of 30, and is now 42.

The case is now in the hands of the Spanish Supreme Court following legal procedures that have taken eight years to complete. “In the meantime, my life has been destroyed,” says Van der Dussen in good Spanish during a conversation with EL PAÍS inside the Palma de Mallorca jail where he is now serving his sentence.

The Dutchman tells his story inside a booth. It’s Sunday, visiting day, and the place is teeming with children here to see their jailed fathers. Hardly anybody ever comes to see Van der Dussen, though. His mother has since passed away and his father, who is ill, lives in the Netherlands. Van der Dussen is all alone. Dressed in a Nike T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, he could still pass for a young tourist – except that his expression reflects a strange combination of sadness, anger, disbelief and exasperation.

He has been through seven penitentiaries in these 11-and-a-half years. There was always trouble because of his rape conviction, forcing prison authorities to transfer him again and again. Málaga, Granada, Murcia, Valencia, Castellón, Alicante, Palma... He has covered the entire costa, one prison at a time. He hopes this one will be the last, but at this point is not sure about anything any more.

“I’ve been in jail over 11 years for crimes I did not commit. I have been through an indescribable hell, these have been the worst 4,000 days of my life,” he says. “During this time I have seen people get stabbed, others commit suicide, others get raped over unpaid debts... All this has caused me irreparable damage. I am in psychiatric treatment. I take medication for post-traumatic stress and suffer from multiple psychological disorders. I have even lost my own dignity as a person. How can I believe in the justice system?”

Van der Dussen arrives at the booth with a pile of papers in his arms. He has had plenty of time to study his own case. At the time of his arrest he could barely speak any Spanish, and used a dictionary to understand the penal code, the Criminal Prosecution Law, the Constitutional Court Law... Eleven years later, his Spanish is more than adequate.

“My mother was raped when she was 14 and she never got over it”

“I started reading the laws because I was convinced that things hadn’t been done right,” he says. “A good police and court investigation do not end with an innocent man in jail. Little by little, I came to realize that there had been several irregularities: I didn’t get a good defense, the identification parade was not conducted properly, all the evidence was not duly investigated... but procedurally, it was too late. Once you have been convicted, proving your innocence becomes very complicated.”

For him, the story began on September 2, 2003. He was living in Benalmádena, on the coast of Málaga, staying in the house of some friends who were letting him live rent-free. He’d been working at an ice-cream parlor for a while, but when it closed down, he was left without a job. But he managed to make ends meet because he was collecting unemployment checks back in the Netherlands.

Van der Dussen had not had an easy life. He became a ward of the Dutch state at age eight after his parents, unable to deal with their own family obligations, called in the social services. He saw them from time to time, but spent his entire childhood and adolescence at juvenile centers. By the time he walked out at age 17, he had a serious ecstasy and cocaine addiction.

“I went through several rehab clinics. I did well, and for quite a while I even worked at an airport hotel,” he explains. “By the time I arrived in Spain I was clean.”

On September 2, 2003, he was arrested near the beach by several police officers. Only later was he informed of the charges: he was the main suspect in a sexual assault case against three women in Fuengirola on the night of August 10, between 4.30am and 6am. In all three cases, the attacker approached the victim, violently beat her and then tried to rape her. Every time, a passerby or a car interrupted the attack before the victim was raped, but all three women – aged 19, 29 and 33 – were terrified.

“I never understood how they could convict me when they had DNA that exonerated me”

The victims and a female witness agreed that the attacker was a strongly built man with curly hair. But two of them said he was blond, while two others said his hair was dark brown. One of them thought he had long hair, while two said he had short hair. At the same time, one said he was about 1.75 meters tall, while another described him as around 1.85 meters.

In any case, it appeared to be the same individual because of the similar way in which all three women were assaulted and the coincidence of the places and times.

The police began by showing the victims photographs of possible suspects. Van der Dussen showed up in one of them because he’d been booked in the past over a fight with his girlfriend and for confronting a police officer. He was never convicted, but his mug shots were still in the police records.

One victim was shown his picture, but did not recognize him. Twelve days later, however, on August 22, she and another victim pointed him out as the attacker “without a shadow of a doubt.” So did a witness who had seen the assailant from her balcony.

One of the women later expressed doubts. At a police lineup in the courthouse on October 1, she said Van der Dussen was shorter than her attacker, and that she was not sure he was the right man. But during the trial two victims and a witness said they were convinced Van der Dussen was the culprit.

Investigators were able to extract a DNA sample from the attacker at the first crime scene, and the results did not match Van der Dussen’s own genetic makeup. Yet the Málaga Provincial Court still sentenced him to 15-and-a-half years in prison on three counts of sexual assault, assault and battery, and violent robbery.

The ruling makes no mention of the DNA sample, nor does it explain why this exonerating piece of evidence was not taken into account. Van der Dussen has been going over this in his mind for years.

A report said it was 54 million times more likely that the DNA was a combination of the victim and Mark Dixie than any two others 

“I never understood how they could convict me when they had DNA that exonerated me,” he says with disbelief. “The police lineup was not normal, either, because they stuck me, with my foreigner’s looks, in with a group of olive-skinned Spaniards who looked nothing like me. I also came up with three witnesses who could vouch for my whereabouts that night, but nobody called them in for a deposition – not the police, not the prosecutor’s office, not even my own attorney! And finally, when the police found the purses that had been stolen from two of the women, they did not check them for fingerprints. These are all things I will never understand. But I suppose it must make you feel better to have a culprit to blame, even if it’s the wrong one.”

Van der Dussen now feels that he was already convicted before the trial even started.

“I was not too worried about it because I thought these things did not happen. I thought it was impossible to end up in jail for a crime you did not commit in a First World country. I understand why the other prisoners did not believe in my innocence. They told me: ‘If you haven’t done anything, why are you in here?’

He openly admits to his earlier run-ins with the police, and knows why he showed up on the list of suspects.

“I’d been in some trouble, although I was never convicted. I was no saint, that is true. But that does not make me a sexual predator,” he says. “I never assaulted those women. I never would have done something like that. My mother was raped when she was 14 and she never got over it. She was a Catholic and did not want to have an abortion. My stepsister is the result of that sexual attack, and my mother always saw her rapist’s face in her own daughter’s. I have experienced that kind of trauma up close and personal.”

Van der Dussen never saw his mother again. She could not stand the idea of her own son being a rapist, and never came to see him in Spain. She died of cancer a few years ago.

“When she was already very ill she asked to say goodbye to me through a video conference, but it was not possible. I was never able to tell her that I loved her very much and that I had never assaulted any girls. She died before I was able to prove my innocence.”

Dixie told a prison guard that “he did not want someone spending time in prison over something he did not do”

Three years after Van der Dussen’s arrest and conviction, a seemingly unrelated crime was solved 2,000 kilometers from Málaga. Sally Ann Bowman, an 18-year-old model, had been raped and murdered in London in September 2005. Mark Phillip Dixie, a man with a long history of sexual assault, rape and robbery, was arrested a year later and sentenced to 34 years. In 2006, following his arrest, his genetic profile was added to Interpol’s Veritas database, and the Spanish police saw that it matched the sample found in Fuengirola – the one for which Van der Dussen had been sent to prison.

The scientific police sent the court in charge of the case a report on March 23, 2007. This document said it was 54 million times more likely that the Fuengirola DNA sample was a combination of the victim and Mark Dixie than any two other people selected at random. In any case, it also recommended asking British authorities for a new sample of Dixie’s DNA.

“The heavens opened up for me at that point,” Van der Dussen recalls. “I thought that finally, the truth would become clear and that my nightmare would be over, that scientific evidence would prove my innocence once and for all, and expose the real culprit.”

But this simple request for additional information by the Spanish police has taken eight years to be honored. First there were all kinds of trouble between the Fuengirola court and the Málaga Provincial Court, and later with the requests for information issued to British authorities.

Until Van der Dussen’s lawyer asked the Supreme Court to review the sentence in 2011, nobody had taken his case seriously or seemed in any hurry to find out whether an innocent man was in jail.

While the top court did not rule in favor of the Dutchman, on February 14, 2012 it asked for the proceedings with London to be speeded up. Three years later, on February 26, 2015, the British report finally reached the courthouse in Fuengirola. And, as expected, Mark Dixie’s new sample fully coincides with the genetic material found at the crime scene.

The British report included something else: a deposition by a prison guard who talked to Dixie. The inmate told him that “he may have been involved” in the Spanish rape case and “did not want someone to be spending time in prison over something he did not do.” Dixie told the warden that he would be “happy to cooperate in any investigation in connection with this case.”

With this new evidence in hand, Van der Dussen’s defense lawyer, Silverio García Sierra, has gone back to the Supreme Court. So far, his request to have his client granted prison leave has been turned down.

“The only reason I’m still handling this case is because I believe in this man’s innocence,” says García Sierra, who was appointed to file a constitutional appeal for Van de Dussen and later decided to stay on as his lawyer out of personal conviction. “You would not believe how this situation has been reached.”

Back at the Palma penitentiary, Van der Dussen says goodbye after a 40-minute talk. He asks whether it’s normal for the justice system to take so long.

“All I’m doing is waiting for this nightmare to end,” he says. “I hope everything will get cleared up and that the person who is responsible for this will pay. Nobody and nothing can make up for the damage I have sustained from this long string of irregularities, but at this point I don’t even have the strength to feel resentful. All I want is for this ordeal to end once and for all.”