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Main entrance of the Regional Court of Hamburg

Photo: Georg Wendt / picture alliance/dpa

"The verdict is NOT a deterrent, it's an invitation to gang rape," someone wrote on X, formerly Twitter. It is a cynical reaction to the verdict in the trial of a sexual offense, which is almost harmless compared to other comments.

The rape of a 15-year-old girl by several young men in Hamburg's Stadtpark caused a stir about three years ago. According to the public prosecutor's office, the girl had attended a party on the festival grounds on September 19, 2020, a popular meeting place during the Corona period.

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Last Tuesday, the trial of ten defendants ended: nine of them were sentenced to juvenile sentences of between one year and two years and nine months for raping the girl. Four of the juvenile sentences imposed were suspended with comprehensive conditions and instructions for educational support. In the case of four defendants, a decision on the execution of the juvenile sentences imposed is to be made in six months. One defendant was acquitted.

"Great concern"

Since then, hate comments, personal attacks, insults and threats against those involved in the trial have come thick and fast, especially on social media. It also calls for violence against the judge, she or her relatives may become victims of rape themselves.

"We are observing the hostility in connection with the trial and the verdict with great concern," says Kai Wantzen, spokesman for the Hamburg Regional Court. The safety of colleagues is the top priority, which is why the authorities are in close contact with each other.

Controversial debates and criticism of judicial decisions are legitimate and necessary in a democracy, and judges and the entire judiciary must face up to this criticism. "In addition to objective criticism, however, there have always been cases in which pronouncements about individual judges crossed borders and had nothing to do with objective criticism of judgments," said Wantzen. "However, the currently widespread hate messages, which have by far left the ground of an objective dispute and in many cases reach the criminally relevant area, have taken on a new, worrying dimension in intensity and mass."

The Hamburg Working Group for Criminal Defense Lawyers is also alarmed after lawyers from the proceedings were threatened in the "supposed anonymity of the Internet", but also in e-mails and telephone calls, according to chairman Arne Timmermann. Regardless of the accusation made, defendants have "a right to a committed and effective defense."

Timmermann speaks of "a coarsening of social debates" when the increasing attitude in society is to no longer accept judgments. In such a social climate, the independence of the judiciary and the legitimacy of legal requirements are also called into question. "But these are the foundations of a democratic society that must be defended at all costs," said Timmermann. "Anything else is an attack on the rule of law."

The trial had taken place behind closed doors – for the protection of the victim and the accused. The verdict caused outrage. On social networks, there were comments such as: "The disgrace of Hamburg has a face. A judge lets the perpetrators of the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl go free and has a heart for migrant perpetrators of violence, but not for their victims."

"Completely unbearable"

The Hamburg Judges' Association, an association of Hamburg judges and public prosecutors, expressed its dismay at "the intolerable agitation against a colleague who had fulfilled the task assigned to her under the Basic Law in this difficult case."

"The calls for violence against the judge, which are also characterized by an anti-immigrant background, are completely intolerable," said chairwoman Heike Hummelmeier. Anyone who takes decisions based on the rule of law as an opportunity to personally threaten the responsible judges rejects "democratic structures and the rule of law and wants the rule of the street." The Hamburg Association of Judges condemns such behaviour in the strongest possible terms.

Arne Timmermann is astonished by the "entrenched, unreflected view" in the population and by the fact that people express themselves in such a derogatory and disgusting way without having any expertise. He sees one of the reasons for this in the reporting and also criticizes the interview that SPIEGEL conducted with the forensic psychiatrist Nahlah Saimeh: "The psychiatrist creates a blanket profile of perpetrators (perpetrators who live on the margins of society, culturally, linguistically and socially completely uprooted) and argues with racist stereotypes. The reader gets confirmation of what he has always thought about 'gang rapists.'"

In the current proceedings, "almost all the defendants speak perfect German, some of them have graduated from school in Germany (for example, Fachabitur), live in one of the most bourgeois districts of Hamburg, are devout Christians and are socially engaged on a voluntary basis."

In principle, he also misses the fact that in connection with such proceedings it is taken into account that juvenile criminal law – unlike adult criminal law – is based on the idea of education. General preventive aspects are alien to juvenile criminal law.

Convictions for juvenile sentences constitute the most severe sanction under juvenile law and are the only ones comparable to the measures of general criminal law.