The alleged rape of a young woman suspected to have been carried out by boys as young as 12 has sparked a debate in Germany around lowering the age of criminal responsibility of young offenders.
Three 14-year-old boys and two 12-year-old boys are being investigated after locals found a woman surrounded by two males in Mülheim, near Cologne, Essen Police said in a statement. All five suspects are Bulgarian, police added.
A police spokesman told CNN that one 14-year-old had appeared before an investigating judge, and is known to police for two previous sex offenses.
As children under 14 cannot be prosecuted under German judicial law, the teenager was too young to be brought to justice, the spokesman added.
Essen Police described the alleged incident as a “serious” sex offense, which took place at around 10:15 p.m. local time on Friday. Local dogwalkers first noticed the nervousness of their pets and they eventually found the young woman with two men in a park behind their garden.
The two males ran away, police said, but were found a short time later with three others — who are now all being investigated. The victim, who is a German national, was taken to hospital, police added.
Authorities confirmed that the two boys aged 12 cannot be criminally punished if they’re found to be guilty.
Rainer Wendt, Chairman of the German Police Union, told CNN that for many years his organization has tried to lower the age of responsibility of young offenders.
Wendt says those under 14 should not necessarily be incarcerated, but should be punished by being barred from specific places or people, or be registered to a youth worker whom they need to check in with on a regular basis.
The German Association of Judges told CNN they were not in a position to comment about the investigation.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe, which currently stands at 10 years old. Scotland raised the age to 12 earlier this year, after it was previously set at eight years old.
However a report posted on the UK Parliament site says the age “contravenes international juvenile justice standards,” and that research shows that children aged 10 “are immature in terms of moral and brain development.”
In 2007 the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) said it was not “internationally acceptable” to set the minimum age of criminal responsibility below the age of 12.