Finnish courts seen to downplay significance of psychological pain in rape cases
Physical violence key in determining severity of sentences
The physical violence used in the act of rape is a key factor in determining the sentences imposed on convicted perpetrators, according to a study by Helsingin Sanomat examining documents of rape trials handled by the courts of appeal of Turku, East Finland, and Helsinki over the past two years.
In one case that ended up in the Turku Court of Appeals, the blackened eye of the victim was a key factor in assessing the credibility of the stories of the defendant and the victim.
The perpetrator was sentenced to over a year in prison. The length of the sentence was influenced by the amount of violence used in breaking the will of the victim, and by the fact that the crime took place in the victim’s own home.
If the rapist had not used overt physical violence, the sentence might have been considerably milder.
Under Finnish law, sexual assault that does not involve overt violence or the threat of violence, is referred to as “coercion into sexual contact”, and not rape. While rape is punishable by no less than one year of imprisonment, the minimum jail sentence for sexual coercion is two weeks.
Lawyer Riitta Silver, who helps victims of sex crimes at the Tukinainen rape crisis centre, feels that the law on coerced sexual contact is vague, and leaves courts with much discretion. She says that in many cases, the term can be confusing for the victim.
“Coerced sexual contact sounds much worse than the true content of the paragraph. In effect, it amounts to a mild rape.”
The maximum sentence for coercion into sexual contact is three years imprisonment, and often the perpetrator gets off with a suspended sentence.
In full-blown rape the maximum prison sentence is six years.
Courts have generally explained the mild sentences handed down for coerced sexual contact by pointing to the small amount of physical violence involved, says Terttu Utriainen, a professor of criminal law, who has studied the sentencing for rape.
“In their decisions, the courts do not directly mention the conditions prevailing at the time of the crime, but they usually involve situations in which the perpetrator and the victim were previously acquainted, or had met each other in a restaurant, for instance.
Figures put out by Tukinainen on last year’s situation show that nearly half of all cases of sexual violence reported to the association take place in the home of the victim, or in a home shared by the two sides.
The figures show that in well over half of all rapes or cases of sexual abuse reported to the association, the perpetrator is a spouse, friend, or acquaintance of the victim. The attacker is unknown to the victim in only a third of the cases.
Under Finnish law, coercion into sexual contact is applied instead of rape in cases in which mitigating circumstances are involved. Mitigating circumstances include the low level of violence or threats.
Crimes of sexual assault are divided into three categories – aggravated rape, rape, and coercion into sexual contact.
“A victim who is not familiar with the content of the law will usually agree to investigating the case as coercion, rather than rape”, Silver says.
Cases of actual rape are prosecuted independently, while prosecution in a case of coercion into sexual contact requires that the alleged victim press charges.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Considerable regional variation in police success in solving crimes of sexual assault (17.3.2011)
TV report: surprisingly lenient sentences for sexual assault (22.6.2009)
Tukinainen - rape crisis centre
Police in Vantaa four times as eager to dismiss reported rapes as police in Espoo (18.3.2011)