Berlin (AFP) - The German government on Wednesday agreed to tighten the country's rape law to cover cases in which a victim withheld consent but did not physically fight back.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet signed off on the measure, which still requires parliamentary approval, after a rash of sexual assaults in crowds on New Year's Eve in the western city of Cologne drew intense media coverage.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas called the draft law "an important step toward strengthening sexual self-determination", noting that there were "unacceptable gaps in protection" against sexual coercion and assault under German law.
"It is high time that changes," he said in a statement. "We owe that to the victims."
Currently, victims in Germany reporting a rape to police must not only demonstrate that they verbally declined sex but also that they physically resisted their assailant.
Maas said the new legislation would now cover "the actual situations in which most attacks occur".
These include cases in which the victim is taken by surprise, intimidated or threatened with other violence, for example in an abusive relationship.
The bill also explicitly mentions employers pressuring staff for sex under threat of sacking.
News agency DPA cited figures that 8,000 rapes are reported in Germany each year but that only one in 10 victims goes to the police. Moreover, only one in 10 rape cases reported leads to a conviction.
- Burden of proof -
Hundreds of women reported sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne on New Year's Eve in attacks blamed on Arab and North African men.
The city's police chief conceded that most culprits may never be caught over the spate of assaults, which ranged from groping to rapes and which inflamed public debate about a record influx of refugees and migrants.
The cases also revived calls to provide more legal protection to victims of sexual assault in Germany, where critics say the burden of proof in excessively high.
"The events on New Year's Eve in Cologne made the sceptics realise how important protecting sexual self-determination is," Maas said in a letter to members of parliament obtained by DPA.
Draft legislation had been submitted several months ago but was held up by opponents who said it went too far.
Tonio Walter, a judge at the superior regional court in the southern city of Nuremberg, told news website Zeit Online that the risk of wrongful convictions was too high under the bill.
"It means that you can easily break the law -- and it is easy to falsely accuse someone," he charged.
Members of Merkel's conservative parliamentary group have called for the legislation to also specifically mention crimes such as those committed in the crowds in Cologne.
"Even when we are 'only' talking about groping, that is a major, traumatising attack that cannot be justified," said deputy Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker.
She proposed a law that would make it illegal to be part of a group committing such assaults in a crowd, rather than requiring proof that a specific person groped a victim.
Maas said the government was open to the inclusion of such a measure in the reform if it receives majority support in parliament.