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Berlin • Following mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year's Eve, the German parliament on Thursday voted in favor of a stricter sexual assault law that also could ease deportation rules for refugees convicted of sex-related offenses.

The new law sharpens punishments for anyone convicted of sexual assault regardless of nationality, but it spells out specific rules for jail-then-deportation for refugees who have sought asylum in Germany.

The changes appear aimed at two overlapping targets: closing legal loopholes over sexual assaults amid complaints that German codes are too lax, and addressing mounting public backlash after Germany absorbed the bulk of a huge wave of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and beyond last year.

But some lawmakers and activists oppose linking the two issues, claiming it could further stigmatize refugees and others as German public opinion increasingly turns against them.

So far, perpetrators had to be proven to have made threats or used physical force to be convicted for rape. Experts have long argued that the country's criminal code lags behind most other developed countries, where sexual assault is more broadly defined in cases such as non-consensual contact.

Most of the suspects during the New Year's Eve assaults were accused of groping and facilitating sex assaults as part of a group - accusations that were difficult to prosecute under the country's criminal code. The new law will now be based on the premise that "no means no," meaning that sexual assault can now be punished as rape if the offender ignores the "discernible contrary will" of the victim.

Parliament members in favor of the new law said that passing it had become a more pressing concern amid more reports of sexual assaults in recent months - some of which have been blamed on refugees. "We can't rule out that people are coming to our country with certain ideas of women being always submissive," said Alexander Hoffmann, a member of the Christian Social Union party, which is part of Germany's ruling coalition.

The law is expected to take effect in September, but some politicians wish the process was faster. "Especially in the summer, several major events are going to take place and we have recently had media reports that the numbers of incidents of sexual assault at public swimming pools have increased," said Hoffmann.

Last week, the German tabloid Bild proclaimed a "sex-mob alarm" at public swimming pools in the western German town of Düsseldorf, citing a "secret" police document, according to which there had been an "enormous increase" in cases of alleged sexual harassment, often blamed on refugees. Eight complaints had been filed in the city this year, mostly for voyeurism and verbal harassment.

Although the majority of Germans and most politicians back stricter sexual assault rules, some legal experts fear the law will make rape trials even more complicated or lead to an unfair treatment of refugees.

Bernward Ostrop, an expert for asylum law at the Berlin office of the Catholic charity Caritas, said that Germany's new sex assault law would most likely not make the country safer, but was rather meant to send a message to voters. "We already have very good possibilities to deport persons who have committed crimes," Ostrop said.

A survey by the University of Bielefeld and the Mercator Foundation published Thursday found that Germany's welcoming culture for refugees and migrants had largely disappeared, nearly one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Syrian refugees would be allowed to stay in the country. One third of all Germans now think that migration poses a threat to the country, according to the survey.

Opposition politicians have argued that amending the law to make it easier to deport criminals guilty of sexual offenses could create the impression that foreigners are more likely to commit such crimes, fueling existing tensions even further.

In the case of major crimes, asylum seekers would first serve their sentence in Germany and only subsequently be deported. For lesser offenses, and the sentence is suspended, the deportation will be carried out right away, if possible, provided the prosecutor approves.

Halina Wawzyniak, an MP with the Left Party, said she was generally in favor of stronger sexual assault laws, but added that sex assaults and immigration should not be linked. "The debate used to be about 'no means no'- now all that is being talked about in social networks are foreigners again."

Wawzyniak said she feared that the new law could lead to "disproportionate" sanctions for relatively minor offenses committed by asylum seekers and that they could face a "double punishment" by being deported.

Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, a lawmaker with Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, disagreed: "These people also act in a way that contributes to the hopeless situation of the victim and is part of the powerlessness the victim feels," she said, referring to the possibility to now also punish bystanders who had not directly committed the assaults or harassment.


Stephanie Kirchner reported from Berlin.