German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries has presented a draft bill that would provide better protection for victims of stalking. This form of persistent harassment hasn't been punishable under German law so far.
Will the new law make it harder for stalkers to spy on their victims?
Until now, police in Germany have found it very difficult to protect people who are subjected to psychological terror by a stalker.
The impact of stalking has been gravely underestimated by the courts. Some 12 percent of Germans are believed to have been harassed over a long period with indecent letters, e-mails, incessant phone calls and the like.
Statistics say that the victims are mainly women, but psychologists insist that the data available are slanted in as much as men are much more unlikely to openly complain about being harassed, because they feel more ashamed to acknowledge it.
In any case, it's the intention of Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries to make stalking a criminal offense. Her draft bill, which also came in response to a recent initiative by the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, was approved by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's cabinet this week.
Quick decisio n u n likely
Talking to the media, Zypries said she hoped the draft would be implemented fairly soon. She was skeptical, though, whether a first reading in the lower house could be initiated this fall ahead of the early election expected to be held on Sept.18.
"Our draft bill treats stalking as a criminal activity for which people can get prison terms of up to three years," she said. "Minor offenses can entail fines. A criminal offence has occurred, if the perpetrator constantly lurks in the victim's vicinity and follows this person, or inundates the victim with e-mails and letters, or buys goods on the Internet on the victim's behalf. In other words, the victim's lifestyle has to be encroached upon seriously and over a longer period, before we can talk about stalking."
The justice minister added cases in which victims had to change apartments or sell their cars in a bid to escape a stalker would be treated as serious offenses.
Jour n alists wary
Journalists' associations have been wary of the draft legislation, because they fear it provides little protection for investigative journalists who might well be accused of being stalkers, too. But Zypries said such fears were totally unfounded.
Marina Rupp of the Institute for Family Research at Bamberg University said the justice ministry's draft bill was long overdue and hoped that once implemented, it would reduce the alarmingly high incident of stalking cases in the country through its deterrent effect.
Stalkers would be going to prison if the new law takes effect
"This legislation makes us think about what happens to people getting victimized by stalking," Rupp said. "That it is a relevant problem and it shows that our society is not willing to accept this kind of violence."
Rupp said that studies conducted at her university had clearly shown that stalking victims had serious problems in getting relatives or police to believe what they'd experienced. She said she was afraid that in future too it would remain hard for victims to actually prove that they were being harassed.