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The case against Tugce's alleged attacker

Wolfgang Dick / cd, ipj
December 5, 2014

Tugce Albayrak wanted to help two strangers, and she paid for it with her life. Now, a mourning Germany has turned its eye on the alleged perpetrator. The case for a harsh punishment, however, is weak.

Symbolbild Gefängnis
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Life in prison!" "Throw away the key!"

Calls like these are increasing on countless Internet forums, demanding long sentences for Sanel M., who was allegedly one of Tugce Albayrak's attackers.

Public prosecutors in the German city of Offenbach have accused the 18-year-old man of delivering a blow to 23-year-old Tugce Albayrak that ultimately led to her death.

According to prosecutors, Sanel M. confessed to being involved in the attack after his arrest. But he said he gave "only a slap" to Albayrak.

The blow was apparently hard enough to send Albayrak to the ground. It is currently unclear whether the head injuries she suffered came from the original blow or from her head striking the ground. The effect of the injuries, however, is clear: Albayrak was declared brain dead and her family later decided to switch off her life support machines.

Vigils for Albayrak drew thousands of people. Her funeral was attended by some 1,500 people and followed throughout Germany.

Tugce Albayrak Porträt
Tugce Albayrak died on her 23rd birthdayImage: Sabah

After the mourning, the national feeling has become one of incomprehension toward the 18-year-old who cut the woman's life short. The unemployed, Serbian-born man is said to have multiple convictions to his name and is considered a "criminally known repeat offender."

The news magazine Spiegel said on Sunday that police took a high blood alcohol reading from the young man two hours after the attack. Earlier that night, he and his friends had visited a discothek and consumed drinks, including whiskey.

His day in court

Prosecutors in Offenbach say the trial is to begin as soon as possible - which at the latest would mean six months. As there is currently no evidence or indication that the 18-year-old intended to kill the girl, the charges against him will not be manslaughter or murder but rather "bodily harm with fatal consequences."

If convicted of the charge, Sanel M. faces up to 10 years in prison.

In view of the known circumstances, German lawyer Hans-Jörg Albrecht said he foresees a sentence of between three and five years.

"The sentence that would be applied in this case would be no different than that for an adult committing the same crime," said Albrecht, director of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law.

Other lawyers quoted in German media shared his assessment, adding that such a sentence would likely be perceived by the public as too lenient. A three-year sentence is conceivable, as is a reduction of that sentence to probation.

A judge's gavel Photo: (c) www.BilderBox.com, Erwin Wodicka
Few in Germany want to impose longer sentences on juvenilesImage: Bilderbox

This is not due to timidity on the part of German judges, but to Germany's criminal law system.

Factors in the case

The court will first examine the crime itself. The video evidence from the scene of the crime - a McDonald's parking lot - shows the attack on Tugce. But the recordings are of such poor quality that what it shows could be open to much interpretation. Defenders may argue that Sanel M. was attacked and struck back in defense. It is still unclear whether the two girls Albayrak intervened to help will testify. In a court case, unclear statements have clear consequences: When in doubt, side with the defendant.

What will be decisive, then, is the accused himself: Sanel M., who turned 18 just days before the attack. That means he is an "adult" under Germany's criminal law. In the case of an 18-year-old, however, lawyers typically refer to defendants as "adolescents" or "young adults." That means Sanel M. can be tried under as someone between the ages of 18 and 21, as an adult or as a juvenile.

"The accused will not be judged more mildly in this case should the juvenile justice system be applied," Albrecht said.

Even within the juvenile justice system, the "seriousness of the offense" is coupled to the verdict. The fact that Albayrak died, in other words, will likely be reflected in the sentence.

Far more important in terms of sentencing, however, is whether the alleged perpetrator is seen to be able to re-enter society. The accused's prior criminal history will therefore come under scrutiny. Sanel M. has already been convicted of burglary, theft, property damage and, in one other case, assault. Despite his criminal record, the young man is not considered a serious offender, which the law regards as someone who commits "multiple serious violent offenses over a longer period of time."

Tugce A. Beerdigung in Wächtersbach 03.12.2014
Over 1,000 people attended a memorial for AlbayrakImage: Reuters//K. Pfaffenbach

Rejecting stiffer penalties

"Among lawyers and criminal lawyers, and among practitioners of the law, I don't see a majority for a toughening of juvenile criminal law at the moment," Albrecht said.

Crime statistics dating back to 2005 also indicate little need for a stricter juvenile criminal system. "We've seen for quite some time that youth violence has been dropping," Albrecht said.

Life-long prison sentences for juvenile offenders would mean taking away the chance of a normal adult life from anyone who committed a serious crime at a young age. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Germany is obligated to issue punishments designed to "rear" adolescent offenders rather than seek vengeance against them with prolonged incarceration.

Nadine Balsa of the association "German Association for Juvenile Courts and Juvenile Court Assistance" points to research showing prison sentences longer than five years dramatically lower a person's chance to lead a normal life free of further criminal offenses.

"Longer prison sentences are counterproductive," she told DW, adding that better results have been achieved in cases where young offenders were assisted in day-to-day situations when they return to life outside of prison.

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