Released from the noose of gang rape allegations that suffocated six years of his life, Rhys Fiteni feels as if he has won the lottery and his eyes still well up when he recalls the court verdict – not guilty.

I’m not proud of what I did but it’s not everyday a girl issues such a challenge

“This woman wiped out six years of my life, but I refuse to let her rob me of the rest of my life,” the 26-year-old from Senglea told The Sunday Times.

Last Tuesday, six years to the day from when an 18-year-old girl turned up at a police station claiming she was gang raped, Mr Fiteni, Keith Bartolo and Ronald Barbara were cleared of the charges.

In a 113-page judgment, Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera found the woman had actually bragged about her sexual prowess and told the young men she could handle all three in bed; a challenge they took up.

From the testimony of various witnesses – and forensic evidence revealing no signs of violent conduct – the court ruled the girl was never forced into doing anything against her will.

Reflecting on that Sunday afternoon in April 2006, Mr Fiteni, who was represented in court by lawyer Joe Giglio, said it all started as a joke while they were taking a stroll along the Senglea promenade.

“I’m not proud of what I did but it’s not every day a girl issues such a challenge.

“I was 20 years old and foolish and while what I did wasn’t right, it wasn’t wrong either,” he said.

Mr Fiteni was having a few drinks at a bar next to the sea when the girl – whom he had met just three times before and whose name was never released by the court – passed by with her cousin, Mr Bartolo.

Mr Fiteni accompanied them and eventually Mr Barbara joined the small group. The conversation was heavy with sexual innuendos, and the girl, who had just fought with her 33-year-old boyfriend, said she could handle all three of them. And they took up the dare.

All four headed to an old property belonging to Mr Fiteni’s grandmother and the three men thought nothing more of it. Except the next day a policeman knocked on their doors and threw their lives into disarray.

“I was terrified. I had no idea what the policeman wanted until we got to the station. Fear engulfed me,” Mr Fiteni said, nervously rubbing his hands.

All three have always protested their innocence, but the charges were serious. They spent two nights under arrest in a police cell, followed by three weeks in prison.

“The prison guard warned us not to mention we were in for rape, but somehow the inmates got to know and wanted to kill us.

“In the first week I was too scared to leave the cell,” he added.

After they were released, the men spent an agonising three months under house arrest.

“It was worse than prison. At home I felt like a bird in an open cage, but unable to fly out,” Mr Fiteni said.

A top regatta rower with Senglea, he spent that first summer in the balcony staring longingly at the children swimming across the bay. On certain days the TV and Playstation were his only companions.

As the days passed he plunged into a dark hole, and resorted to tranquilisers to cope.

“I cried every day. I felt completely lost. It was a very black period,” he said, pulling out a tattered scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel from around his neck, which his grandmother had given him during this difficult time. “I will never take it off!”

I started imagining that women who saw me in the street were crossing the road for fear I’d rape them

When his bail conditions were eased, he was so scarred it took him about two years to pluck up the courage to date a girl.

“I started imagining that wo­men who saw me in the street were crossing the road for fear I’d rape them,” he said.

The rape accusation hung over his head for years, and when he started dating his current girlfriend, Amy, two months ago, he told her everything from the outset so that she could hear it from him first-hand.

Amy, who stood by his side throughout the interview, fiercely came to his defence, and recounted the arguments she had with her family when they learnt who she was dating.

Mr Fiteni calmed her down and said: “It’s only natural for your family to feel this way. If it was my sister I’d do the same.”

The allegations have not only ruined his reputation but the pending court case also robbed him of his dream to become a soldier.

Holding down a job was not easy, and the only thing that saved him during these six years was the regatta where he spent his days venting his frustration, in turn winning numerous trophies and shields for Senglea.

“I don’t blame people thinking what they did.

“Who would believe an 18-year-old girl challenged three boys to have sex?

“It was an unusual case, which made things harder,” he said, trying to reason things out.

During many sleepless nights, he decided he would never let hatred erode his soul.

“I’m focusing on the positive side. I refuse to let anger get the best of me as it will lead to nasty situations. This is the end of the story for me,” he said, adding he will not be pursuing the matter in court or taking action against the girl.

“Now I’ll start a new life. This is a different Rhys. I have the regatta, I have Amy... I just want to lead a normal life. I’m not seeking anything special; I just want to be happy.”

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