Lack of law on stalking bemoaned

Meier says most stalkers are men because they react more agressively when a relationship breaks up

Unlike in some neighbouring countries, there are no laws in Switzerland against stalking. The result is that victims are inadequately protected, critics say.

This content was published on July 1, 2010 - 08:05

Most stalking cases arise from relationships gone sour, says Esther Meier, head of the city of Bern’s office for the protection of adults and children. Meier tells the lack of legal protection for victims is unacceptable.

Bern has established a counselling centre in the hope that by addressing harassment with professional advice, the problem can be stopped.

On average one person each month is a victim of stalking in the capital city. One of the most prominent cases involved high-profile television personality Michelle Hunziker, who was a victim.

Experts say the number of cases probably hasn’t increased but that victims – in part because of the publicity surrounding prominent cases – are more likely to report cases to authorities. What does a typical stalking case look like?

Ester Meier: Stalking cases usually arise out of a relationship that has fallen apart. We refer to stalking in cases where there is deliberate, malicious and repeated or constant harassing or bullying.

The boundary is crossed when the victim’s “no” is no longer accepted. Stalking is accompanied by harassment of various kinds including unwanted messages or verbal abuse, which can come via text message or email. Very often the stalker also lurks around the workplace or in front of the home, or follows the victim in the car.

Studies in Germany and the United States suggest around 12 per cent of the population has at one point or another been affected. We assume there are many unreported cases because many people don’t dare to go to authorities.

Stalking has always existed but previously, it was just by using words to bully or harass. How should the victim react in these situations?

E.M.: It is important that the victim says no and is consistent. Women in particular tend to search for understanding and speak again and again to the offender, and through conversation try to make it clear they want nothing to do with him.

With each instance of contact the perpetrator believes the victim wants something from him. From this distorted perception the offender is usually completely unaware he is in the wrong.

Our message to victims is therefore to consistently avoid contact with the stalker even if it is very difficult. The sooner the victim responds, the better. These situations usually begin with declarations of love. The situation escalates when the stalker realises his efforts are in vain.

Then comes hate and revenge, which can lead to verbal abuse, threats of violence, destroying property, injuring or killing the victim’s pets, as well as physical and sexual assault. Where do you see action against stalking taking place?

E.M.: Germany and Austria, in contrast to Switzerland, have special anti-stalking laws. The cabinet believes that existing criminal laws cover typical stalker behaviour such as coercion, threats and defamation. Our view however, is that the situation for victims in Switzerland is unsatisfactory.

Since stalking is not specifically listed as a criminal offence in Switzerland, the victim must pursue claims. The burden of proof lies with the victim. That process also leads to direct confrontation between victims and perpetrators, which is extremely problematic.

If stalking was considered a criminal offence, it would be an offence against the state, not just the victim. The police would have the opportunity to take action against stalkers immediately.

Given the situation in Switzerland, simple, quick and free counselling for victims of stalking is most important. Specifically, what kind of advice is the city of Bern’s new centre providing?

E.M.: Our centre first collects information, together with the victim. We ask about the victim’s relationship to the stalker and about how the victim has reacted so far. The second step is a risk analysis.

Our aim is to break the taboo around stalking. Are there any people who are particularly at risk of becoming stalkers or could it be anyone?

E.M.: It can be said that people who are not integrated into society have a higher risk. But in principle there are no special characteristics, so everyone could become a stalker. We cannot simply label stalkers as sick people though; it depends on each situation.

But the fact is that most stalkers are men. This is because when a relationship breaks up, men react more aggressively and try to restore the relationship by any means. Women react more defensively by pulling back and grieving for themselves. There was the case of former army chief Roland Nef, who was accused of stalking. How much awareness did that raise among the public?

E.M.: We believe that by raising awareness in the media, and certainly with the case of Nef, more people will register with the counselling centres. Generally speaking, in the past decade, police and judges have also become sensitised to the subject.

What has changed compared with previously are the means at the disposal of the stalker. With modern communication tools such as SMS and email, it has become easier to harass victims.

Corinne Buchser, (Adapted from German by Justin Häne)

Stalking and advice

The city of Bern’s office for the protection of adults and children has set up a special centre to provide advice to victims of stalking.

The office says the assistance is easy, quick and free.

Studies in the US and Germany indicate that 12 per cent of the population has at one point been stalked.

The perpetrators are usually former intimate partners or work colleagues of the victims. In 90 per cent of cases, the perpetrators are male.

Offenders often cannot accept the end of a relationship of have unsuccessfully pursued a relationship.

The forms of harassment vary but have spread with new technology to include email and SMS messages.

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