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Germany

Hamburg rape case shines light on difficulty of prosecuting young criminals

Several youths have been handed suspended sentences after raping a 14-year-old girl in the northern city of Hamburg. The case has revealed the murky nature of sentencing young people who commit crimes in Germany.

For many, the punishment does not appear to fit the crime. Four young men between the ages of 14 and 21 sexually assault a drunken teenage girl while a 15-year-old films their actions. Afterward, the group leaves the victim for dead in the freezing cold. What happens in the end? The 21-year-old is sentenced to jail for four years, while the others are let off without any prison time at all.

The incident, which occurred in February, is only the latest to shine a light on the challenge of prosecuting criminal cases in which the accused are young people. Last month, a 12-year-old boy in Euskirchen was nearly beaten to death by a classmate who was ultimately too young to face criminal charges for his deeds.

For a country still reeling from the fallout of the mass sexual assaults in Cologne last New Year's Eve, however, the Hamburg case could be a turning point. Following the court's decision, which was made last week, citizens responded with an online petition urging new rules for minors who commit violent crimes. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had garnered more than 65,000 signatures, and prosecutors said they were looking at a new way to punish the perpetrators.

Deutschland Hamburger Landgericht (picture alliance/dpa/C. Charisius)

Hamburg's district court

Too mild a sentence?

"It isn't acceptable that the four-person gang rape of a 14-year-old girl ends with probation," the petition begins, adding that "when jurisprudence has nothing to do with the moral feelings of the citizens, then justice loses its claim to be 'in the name of the people.'"

Some lawyers expressed surprise at the judge's decision as well. "For me, it seems like the court's sentence was a bit on the low side," one attorney told the German news website Focus Online. "Four years for the ringleader doesn't seem particularly hard here."

Indeed, a similar case that occurred in the university town of Tübingen in 2015 ended with much stronger sentences for the defendants. Four men between the ages of 19 and 23 were convicted of raping a drunken 24-year-old woman in a dark schoolyard after luring her away from a party. In the end, the men were sentenced to prison for terms ranging from six years and six months to seven years and six months.

Hamburg Prozess Gruppenvergewaltigung (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt)

The accused sit with their lawyers in Hamburg

A 'flexible system'

However lenient the Hamburg decision might seem, it falls squarely within the parameters of German law, criminal defense lawyer Michael E. Kurth told DW. "I didn't find it really shocking that they didn't all get jail time," he said. "It's a flexible system. It should be a flexible system."

Kurth explained that in Germany, a person under the age of 14 is exempt from facing criminal charges. Between the ages of 14 and 18, a defendant is subject to the laws under the country's juvenile criminal code. Then, from 18 to 21, a judge can use his discretion about whether or not someone is treated as a juvenile or as an adult.

The decision rests largely on how "mature" the defendant is according to the judge. Factors such as the defendant's level of education, home life and personal situation are all taken into account. Judges in the juvenile criminal law system are specially trained and defendants are interviewed by professionals before entering the court. Prior convictions or a history of criminal behavior are all taken into account before handing out sentences.

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A 'good system'

Kurth said that while Germany's process of trying young people in criminal cases is a bit murky, it's the best option. "You can't say every rape deserved eight years or every rape deserved 10 years," he said. "Every story is different. Every crime is different. Every perpetrator is different. You have to apply the law individually."

He also doubted the Hamburg case would lead to a change in the way such cases are handled in court, noting that politicians and judges have made calls in the past to alter the juvenile criminal code.

"In the end, it never passes, it never flies," Kurth said. "Experience tells us it's good the way it is and it's worked in the past. There might be extreme cases that aren't very satisfying and this might be one. But why should we question the system that has worked for the past 50 years?"

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