Germany rape law: 'No means No' law passed

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A flashmob gather in front of Hauptbahnhof main railway station to protest against the New Year's Eve sex attacks on 9 January 2016 in Cologne, GermanyImage source, Getty Images

Germany's parliament has passed a new law defining rape, clarifying that "No means No", even if a victim did not fight back.

Critics believe Germany has long lagged behind other developed nations when it comes to its rape laws.

The issue was again brought to the fore after a number of sex attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.

The vote was passed by a huge majority on Thursday in the Bundestag, where MPs stood and cheered the result.

The new law classifies groping as a sex crime and makes it easier to prosecute assaults committed by large group.

It also makes it easier to deport migrants who commit sex offences.

What was under discussion?

Under the previous law, defined in Section 177 of the criminal code (in German), victims should have defended themselves for an act to constitute rape. Simply saying "No" was not sufficient to find the defendant guilty, and there was no attempt to define what constituted consent.

The inadequacy of the law meant many perpetrators got away with rape, according to a 2014 study of 107 cases by the German association of women's counselling centres and rape crisis centres (BFF).

The authors said that in every case, sexual assaults had been committed against the victim's unambiguous will, which had been communicated verbally to the perpetrator. However, they said, either charges were not filed or there was no court conviction.

The study went on to note that the law placed too much focus on whether the victim resisted and did not reflect real-life scenarios in which people were raped.

Only one in 10 rapes is reported in Germany currently, according to Germany's n-tv news website. And of those, the conviction rate is only 10%.

What was the response?

"In the past there were cases where women were raped but the perpetrators couldn't be punished,'' Minister for Women Manuela Schwesig said.

"The change in the law will help increase the number of victims who choose to press charges, lower the number of criminal prosecutions that are shelved and ensure sexual assaults are properly punished."

What will the new regulations do?

They will take into account both physical and verbal cues from the victim when assessing whether rape took place, meaning, in theory, that saying "No" could prove a lack of consent and, therefore, rape.

What prompted this change?

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Hundreds of women allege they were assaulted during New Year celebrations in Cologne - but few perpetrators have been convicted

Germany has long been backward when it comes to its rape laws, say campaigners - pointing out that marital rape became a criminal offence only in 1997.

A number of prominent cases have pushed the issue into the spotlight.

The wave of attacks on New Year's Eve in Cologne shocked Germans, though prosecutions have been minimal and many were aghast to learn that, once again, assault could only be proven under German law if the victim resisted.

On Thursday, a 21-year-old Iraqi and an Algerian of 26 became the first men to be convicted of sexual assault when a Cologne court gave them suspended one-year sentences.

The attacks prompted a campaign for reform under the hashtag "NeinHeisstNein" (No means No).

And, in a case that has sparked an outcry in Germany, two men were acquitted of drugging and raping German model Gina-Lisa Lohfink - despite having uploaded a video of what took place, in which she was reportedly heard saying, "Stop it, stop it" and "No".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Gina-Lisa Lohfink has appealed after receiving a fine for false testimony

Not only were the men cleared of wrongdoing, but Ms Lohfink was fined €24,000 (£21,000; $27,000) for falsely testifying.

She has appealed against the the charges. The case has been compared to the Stanford University sexual assault furore in the United States.

Will the new law solve the problem?

Campaigners say the new law is a good start, but does not go far enough.

They have expressed concern that the law will not give adequate protection to victims who cannot clearly convey their lack of consent - such as those who have been drugged.

There are also plans to tighten the law governing sexual harassment and group assaults.

What's the next ambition?

Activist Kristina Lunz said it was unacceptable that the vast majority of rapes were still going unpunished in Germany.

"Of course it should be 'Yes means Yes'," says Ms Lunz, referring to a 2015 law passed in California that makes the legal standard for sex affirmative verbal consent.