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Teen Sex Case Puts Turkey's Judicial System in Spotlight

Teenagers are rarely prosecuted for having sex, but a 13-year-old British girl has managed to put a 17-year old-German boy behind bars in Turkey. The case has become a thorn in German-Turkish relations.

German teenager Marco Weiss with Turkish flag in background

Marco thought the British girl was 15

Turkey's Antalya coast is enormously popular among German and British tourists for its pristine beaches, sporting activities and nightlife. A 17-year-old high school student from the small northern German town of Ülzen, identified as Marco W. in German media reports, had spent the Easter break with his parents at a five-star hotel resort in Side.

But on April 12, Marco's holiday turned into a nightmare.

Turkish police officers arrested him for having sex with a 13-year-old Briton, known in German media as Charlotte M. The mother of the Manchester girl had accused Marco of sexually abusing her daughter after he had been invited up to the girl's hotel room.

Marco claims Charlotte told him she was fifteen and what has emerged in the German media is a portrait of a manipulative 13-year-old deceiving a youth four years her senior.

Turkey has also been lambasted by the tabloids, commentators and politicians for its treatment of a juvenile. Much has been made of Marco's psychological state and the decrepit conditions of the detention cell, which he has been sharing with 30 other inmates for the past four months.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül

Steinmeier (left) talked to Turkey's Gül about Marco

German politicians have intervened on Marco's behalf at the highest levels. Chancellor Angela Merkel made public assurances that she would help Marco and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke privately to his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, who is likely to be elected Turkey's next president at the end of this month. Gül said that he could not interfere with Turkey's independent judiciary.

Different stories

Marco claims the two only kissed and engaged in "heavy petting," consensually. No sexual intercourse took place, he has said.

On Aug. 8, a gynecologist who had examined Charlotte said that there was no evidence of assault and the girl was still a virgin. But there was sexual penetration, insisted Charlotte's lawyer Ömer Aycan, who told his client's side of the story in a telephone interview with DW-WORLD.DE from Antalya.

Charlotte has claimed that she was asleep in the double room when Marco and another boy knocked on the door after midnight. She asked Marco to leave, but he refused and proceeded to force himself on her. Charlotte screamed, alerting other teenagers in the room, and Marco fled.

"Charlotte refused to have sex with Marco, so I can use the word rape. He raped a 13-year-old girl," said Aycan, who added that Charlotte's age was known to the German youth.

Sexual contact without the use of force is criminal under Turkish law when one of the individuals involved is under 15. Aycan is seeking the maximum conviction, a sentence of fifteen years, although that penalty would be reduced by a third since Marco is also a minor.

Statutory rape laws

View of Turkish prison where Marco W. is being held in detention

Marco is awaiting trial in an Antalya prison

The case has thrust Turkey's judicial system in the spotlight and reinforced the German perception that the predominantly Muslim country is backward in its sexual attitudes, and therefore does not belong in the European Union.

But legal experts say that Turkey has made tremendous strides in bringing its laws in line with EU norms, and the case would have been handled no differently in Germany, England or the US.

"The mother of the girl charged a young man with child abuse. The prosecutors had no choice but to arrest Marco," said Christian Rumpf, an attorney in Stuttgart who is an expert on Turkish law.

In Turkey as in Germany, any foreigner charged with a crime must remain in detention until cleared of the charges, said Rumpf, who does not believe that Marco will be easily acquitted.

The law governing sex with underage minors, or "statutory rape," is taken seriously in Turkey and other countries. The legal "age of consent" for sex can range from 14 to 18 years, depending on country or even different regions of the same country. The law is meant to protect children and adolescents from being coerced by an older individual into having sex, but also applies to sexual activity between teens of similar ages.

"Where do you draw the line between the normal sexuality of teenagers and protecting a child from sexual abuse?" asked Rumpf.

Germany would have prosecuted too

Couple kissing

Kissing is not a felony at any age, but sex is

In Germany, that line is drawn at age 14.

"Kissing is not a felony in Germany at any age, if that is all they did. But sexual contact is illegal in Germany when one of them is under 14," said Heribert Ostendorf, a former federal prosecutor who heads the program for juvenile law and crime prevention at the University of Kiel.

"Most people just don't know the specifics of child-abuse laws in Germany and that Marco would have also been prosecuted in his own country," he said, adding that the burden is on Marco to prove that he did not know that Charlotte was only 13.

"Ignorance of the law is no protection from being punished by it," he said.

"There are only victims in this case"

The case has resulted in a media circus and Charlotte's family has been hounded by German reporters in Manchester. The girl did not show up for the last hearing because of the publicity glare, according to Aycan.

"There are only victims in this case -- Marco, Charlotte, and even the Turkish justice system, which is facing intense scrutiny from Germany, Britain and the EU. The Turkish judges are under tremendous pressure and cannot afford to make mistakes," said Lale Akgün, a Turkish-born Social Democratic parliamentarian in the German Bundestag who served for many years as a family and youth counselor for the city of Cologne.

Akgün also believes the case has been damaging for German-Turkish relations. News commentators in Turkey were outraged that German politicians tried to influence a matter that belongs in the courts.

"The intervention of Steinmeier has put even more pressure on the Turkish judiciary to prove that it is capable of making independent decisions without being swayed by politics," she said.

Parallels in the US

Tourist beach in Antalya, Turkey

Turkey's Antalya coast is popular among German tourists

In the United States, former President Jimmy Carter and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama unsuccessfully lobbied Georgia's high court to overturn the conviction of Genarlow Wilson, who is serving a ten-year jail sentence for having oral sex with his girlfriend.

The girl never filed charges, but the act was caught on videotape at a New Year's Eve party in 2003, and wound up in the hands of Georgia state prosecutors. In Georgia, the age of consent is 16 years of age. Wilson was 17 at the time, but his girlfriend was only 15. He was charged and convicted of child molestation.

The Wilson case has gotten wide publicity in the United States, and many Americans are now questioning whether the statutory rape laws that are meant to protect minors go too far.

In June, an appeal courts judge called Wilson's prison term "a grave miscarriage of justice," but the former star athlete still remains behind bars.

Meanwhile Marco's next trial date in Antalya is on September 6. The judicial process in this instanced is not unusually long, considering the backlog of cases in Turkish courts and the time required to depose witnesses in three different countries, according to Christian Rumpf.

"We need to let the Turkish courts do their job and do it right," said Lale Akgün. "This takes time."

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