The German government has passed a new law broadening the definition of sexual attacks, and making it easier to deport foreign nationals convicted of committing such attacks.
MPs stood and cheered in the Bundestag as the tighter legislation passed with a huge majority. Among the measures in the bill are new rules defining groping as a sex crime, and a new definition of rape which clarifies that “no means no” even if the victim does not fight back.
Germany’s rape laws have been an ongoing subject of discussion for many years, with critics arguing that the country has long lagged behind other Western nations for passing stricter legislation. But the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, and similar attacks in the following months proved a catalyst for new rules.
“It is crucial that we finally embed the principle ‘No means No’ in criminal law and make every non-consensual sexual act a punishable offence,” said deputy Eva Hoegl of the Social Democrats, one of the law’s sponsors, Euractiv has reported.
Under previous rules it was insufficient for a victim to prove that they had said “no” to their attacker – they also had to prove that they had physically attempted to defend themselves from rape for a conviction to be secured.
According to Germany’s N-TV, just one in ten rapes was reported in Germany, and of those, only one in ten resulted in a conviction.
“In the past there were cases where women were raped but the perpetrators couldn’t be punished,” Minister for Women Manuela Schwesig said, the BBC has reported.
“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.”
Angela Merkel’s cabinet gave the nod to the new legislation in March, following the revelation of the extent of the attack by mostly Arab and African men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Over 1,000 separate incidents of sexual assault and robbery were recorded in the space of one evening hours.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged that there were “unacceptable gaps in protection” against sexual coercion and assault in German law as it stood, adding that the new law is intended to cover “the actual situations in which most attacks occur.”
And the law specifically makes it easier to expel migrants convicted of sexual assault. Under previous rules proof of additional “violence, threats or physical endangerment,” and a prison sentence of at least a year was generally required before a deportation order could be secured, as well as evidence of sexual assaults.
That has now been altered so that any sexual assault can be used against an applicant during their immigration or asylum hearing.
The laws also upgrade groping to a specific sexual crime, carrying sentences of up to two years in prison or a fine. And anyone who is part of a group committing assaults in a crowd is now liable for prosecution, under a new stipulation that anyone “who at least tacitly accepts that crimes are committed by a group they are a part of” can be prosecuted.
However, campaigners have said that the new laws do not go far enough as they don’t cover situations – such as a rape involving drugs – in which victims are unable to say no.
In reference to a 2015 law passed in California which makes positive affirmation of consent the legal standard, activist Kristina Lunz said “of course it should be ‘Yes means Yes’.”