Stalking is a criminal offense in Germany, but it's difficult to bring criminal charges against suspects. Germany's justice minister has proposed a new law that makes it easier for victims to take legal action.
Critics have long lamented Germany's anti-stalking law, which they say places more of a legal burden on victims than on perpetrators. Without evidence of life-threatening violence or proof that a victim has had to move or change jobs to escape a stalker, there are few legal options for stopping such harassment.
A draft law presented by the German government on Wednesday would expand the definition of stalking and facilitate bringing criminal charges against suspects.
"Stalking can ruin lives," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said. "We can't have a situation that requires someone to move before a stalker can be criminally prosecuted."
The change proposed by Maas will continue to allow for restraining orders, forced evictions and fines for those found guilty in less-serious cases.
Stalkers who have been found guilty of having profound impacts on their victims' lives can face up to three years in prison. Cases in which stalkers are found guilty of murder or of endangering the lives of victims or their families or friends can carry prison sentences of up to 10 years.
2007 anti-stalking law
A decade ago, police could not take action against suspected stalkers without evidence of bodily harm or sexual assault.
In 2007, then-Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries helped introduce rules that allowed for prosecution in cases in which someone maintained unwanted direct or indirect contact with another person.
The draft law announced on Wednesday takes that a step further. If the law is passed, stalking victims would be able to press charges before harassment has forced them to move or change jobs. Evidence that stalking has had a negative impacted on a person's life will suffice to take the case to court.
'Stalking knows no bounds'
Christine Doering, a former victim of stalking who is now the administrator of the website Stalking und Justiz (Stalking and Justice), told DW that the government's action was a step in the right direction, but she said there was still a need to sensitize both police and the judiciary.
Whether a court case moves swiftly or drags, Doering said, "it always cuts into a victim's life - and that just can't be the case."
Another problem, Doering said, is that there is a degree of victim blaming, especially if victims had been in a relationship with their stalkers.
Doering is also concerned that by expanding the general definition of stalking, the draft law has inadvertently created a loophole by eliminating a list of specific, punishable actions.
"Stalking knows no bounds, nor does the imagination of a stalker," Doering said. "They think of incredible things that would never occur to someone to do."
Despite the law's imperfections, legislation of this sort has "an enormous clarifying effect," said the psychologist Wolfgang Ortiz-Müller, who founded Stop Stalking, an outreach program that helps victims receive help.
Stop Stalking's work includes outreach to perpetrators, who can receive anonymous counseling to help them control their impulses and understand why their actions are unacceptable. Helping to curb stalking behavior is a vital part of protecting victims, Ortiz-Müller told DW.
The Justice Ministry's proposal is an answer to the outcry over slow proceedings and the high number of cases that have ended with dismissals instead of criminal charges, Ortiz-Müller said, but he added that it's unclear how effective it will prove to be in court.
Ortiz-Müller said Germany must do more to support victims and counsel stalkers. Recognizing the emotional impact of extreme harassment, even if victims have not had to make extremes change to their lives to escape their stalkers, is vital.
"Society now views a behavior as punishable that it had previously assumed was something that people had to put up with," Ortiz-Müller said. "And now it's saying, 'No: You don't have to put up with this any longer.'"