Germany to bolster rape law after Cologne mob assaults

Germany's parliament has approved tough new sex crime laws, making any form of non-consensual sexual contact a crime, following mass attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve which were largely blamed on migrants.
A woman looking at flowers and letters of protest, laid down on the steps of the Cathedral in front of the Cologne main train station in Cologne, Germany.
A woman looking at flowers and letters of protest, laid down on the steps of the Cathedral in front of the Cologne main train station in Cologne, Germany.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN  (AFP) – The German parliament passed a landmark “no means no” rape law Thursday (July 7), broadening the definition of sex crimes and making it easier to deport migrants and refugees who commit them.

After years of anguished discussion on the need for tougher treatment of rape by the German criminal justice system, the new legislation finally came together following a rash of sexual assaults in crowds on New Year’s Eve in the western city of Cologne.

Deputies gave a standing ovation as the law passed the  Bundestag lower house with an overwhelming majority, following an emotional debate.

Dubbed the “no means no” law, it explicitly covers cases in which a victim withheld consent but did not physically fight back. It brings what critics call woefully lax legislation into line with that of many other developed countries.

The law, entitled “improving the protection of sexual self-determination”, also lowers the bar for deporting sex offenders, classifies groping as a sex crime and targets assaults committed by large groups.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged that under German law there were “unacceptable gaps in protection” against sexual coercion and assault.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet signed off on the measures in March after the attacks in Cologne, where more than 1,000 women reported sexual assaults and robberies on New Year’s Eve, which were blamed largely on Arab and North African men.

The draft law was toughened again by the ruling left-right coalition last month.

Cologne’s police chief conceded earlier this year that most culprits may never be caught over the spate of assaults, which ranged from groping to rape and inflamed public debate about a record influx of refugees and migrants.

A first attempt at prosecution in May was thrown out by a court when the alleged victim said she could not identify the defendant as her attacker.

A second trial began Thursday just as the Bundestag began its debate, with an Iraqi and an Algerian in the dock accused of groping one woman’s buttocks and crotch and licking the face of another. Both are also accused of attempted robbery.

Currently, victims reporting a rape to police must not only demonstrate that they verbally declined sex but also that they resisted their assailant.

The new law is intended to cover “the actual situations in which most attacks occur”, Maas said.

These include cases in which the victim is taken by surprise, intimidated or threatened with other violence, for example in an abusive relationship, or is unconscious.

“Other countries implemented this principle of ‘no means no’ long ago and it is high time that we have this paradigm shift in our own criminal law,” lawmaker Carola Reimann of the Social Democrats told the Bundestag.

Parliament had already in January made it easier to expel migrants and refugees convicted of crimes.

But along with sexual offences, it required proof of additional “violence, threats or physical endangerment” and generally a prison sentence of at least one year before an attacker could be deported.

The reform means any sexual assault conviction can be used against an applicant in an immigration or asylum hearing.

It also specifically upgrades groping to a sex crime with sentences of up to two years’ jail or a fine.

Merkel’s conservative parliamentary group included a stipulation making it illegal to be part of a group committing assaults in a crowd, rather than requiring proof that a specific person attacked a victim.

Anyone “who at least tacitly accepts that crimes are committed by a group they are a part of” can now be prosecuted.

The leftist opposition withheld its support for that plank of the legislation on constitutional grounds, saying it opened the door to prosecution of innocent bystanders.

News agency DPA cited figures that 8,000 rapes are reported in Germany each year but that only one in 10 victims files charges. Moreover, only one in 10 rape complaints leads to a conviction.

The latest reform drive began in 2011 with the passage of a Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women, requiring signatories including Germany to penalise all non-consensual sexual acts.