A year after stalking was made a criminal offense in Germany, a newly opened advice center for stalkers in Berlin reflects a growing awareness that institutional strategies are needed to deal with this problem.
Stalkers can talk to the new helpline anonymously
In early May, an out-of-work lifeguard and pool cleaner was convicted in New York of stalking Hollywood actress Uma Thurman.
During the trial, Thurman told the court that for several years, Jack Jordan had sent her a series of disturbing letters and cards; turned up at her home and film sets and sent harassing e-mails to her family. Jordan thought he was being romantic, his lawyer argued.
"Creepy? Yes. Obsessed? Yes. Criminal? No," said George Vomvolakis at the start of the trial. "[My client] does not think the way you and I think…he doesn't know the boundaries you and I know," he told the jury.
A way out
A new project called Stop Stalking, with offices in southwestern Berlin, is well aware that stalkers like Jordan need help in seeing the error of their ways -- and to be shown a way out before they commit criminal acts.
"We condemn their behavior, but we don't condemn them as a person," said Wolf Ortiz-Mueller, director of the center.
A cooperation between police, lawyers, social workers and counselors, the project's aim is to get stalkers to stop harassing their victims before the situation spirals out of control -- or, failing that, to help convicted stalkers overcome their obsessions and rebuild normal lives.
"We try to offer the stalker support in stopping his/her behavior," said Ortiz-Mueller. "Some are sent by police, some by lawyers, others have already been charged. We also have people who come to us voluntarily, because they know what they're doing is out of line but can't stop by themselves."
To anyone who argues that it's the victims who need help and not the perpetrators, Ortiz has a ready answer.
"Our goal is prevention and victim protection," he stresses. "But ultimately, only the stalker can decide that he/she will stop stalking."
When obsession gets dangerous
Franka Potente was harrassed by a stalker
The Stop Stalking project addresses what appears to be a growing phenomenon.
Uma Thurman's was merely the latest of the many high-profile cases that regularly hit the headlines, and not just in the US. From fashion designer Jil Sander to politician Guido Westerwelle and actress Franka Potente, German celebrities have also had their fair share of stalkers.
According to a study published by the Technical University in Darmstadt, three in four celebrities will have been the victim of a stalker at some point in their career.
But in fact, it's a widespread problem by no means restricted to VIPS -- as Berlin-based writer and translator Mitch Cohen found out first-hand. He was psychologically persecuted for years by a man he barely knew.
"He was a friend of a friend," he explains. "I once put him up in my apartment for 6 weeks. But about 13 years later he began terrorizing me: stuffing mailboxes with crazy letters; daily castigations over the phone, sometimes in the middle of the night, and if I hung up he called right back; threats of violence and murder; ordering things that cost money from companies in my name; having the post office stop delivering my mail."
In the US, stalking has been a criminal offence since California became the first state to pass legislation in 1990, with almost every other state following suit in subsequent years.
In March 2007, Germany also jumped on the bandwagon when parliament introduced what's known as Paragraph 238 to its criminal code. Stalkers can now be punished with fines or prison sentences of up to 10 years, with the heaviest sentences for cases which resulted in death.
Since then, police say they have been flooded with people wanting to report cases of stalking. In just one year, over 1,000 investigations were launched in the German capital alone.
But the new law came too late for Mitch Cohen, who felt that back then, less support was available to him than to his tormentor.
"At that time, if a person was 'not culpable' because crazy, the justice system could not do anything unless he was an 'immediate threat to the life or body of himself or others," he said. "It took eight murder threats to put him away for just six weeks."
Stalkers often have a distorted sense of reality
"The social-psychiatric services were on his side," said Cohen. "Their goal was to keep him on the street. They refused to speak to his victims unless forced to by the police. Then they made mealy-mouthed excuses that made them feel they themselves were humane, progressive people and his victims merely intolerant of 'people who are different.'"
But recent developments such as the 2007 legislation and the Stop Stalking project have helped turn the tables.
"There is now a framework for victims to react and fight back, and for police to prosecute," said Ortiz-Mueller. "The perpetrators are under more pressure, and the legal measures are backed up with psychosocial support."
Cohen is less optimistic. "From my experience, I suspect that the vast majority of stalkers have no idea that they have a problem," he said.