According to the Institute of Law of the Lithuanian Center for Social Sciences, a poll has revealed that one in six people in Lithuania have experienced stalking and one in four know someone who did. Although Lithuania criminalized stalking in the fall of 2021, proving it in court is still difficult: in the 13 months since the law entered into force, no fewer than 26 of the 45 registered cases were dropped as lacking an actus reus. So what is missing to protect victims of stalking in Lithuania?
For two years, a team of researchers scrutinized the phenomenon of stalking in Lithuania, defined as systemic criminal actions against a person’s clear will with negative consequences on the victim’s social life, emotional state, and privacy, restricting their freedom of action, creating constant tension, harming their professional life and social relations, sometimes forcing victims to change address, workplace, educational institution, social circle, and so on.
"People who experience stalking differ greatly in their ability to deal with the experience. The extent to which the state can protect victims of stalking is very important,” said the head of the research team, Dr. Ilona Laurinaitytė, a professor at the Institute of Psychology at Vilnius University and senior researcher at the Institute of Law of the Lithuanian Center for Social Sciences. “The criminalization of stalking was a significant step in reinforcing public awareness that this is negative and intolerable behavior, that stalkers must be held accountable for their actions. We can only hope we will be able to help the victims of stalking persecution more effectively in the future, because right now the new regime is still under development and we’ve only begun to assemble a body of case law."
Because of stalking’s negative impact on the victim’s mental health, it’s referred to as mental abuse: the victim experiences anxiety, fear, feelings of helplessness, insecurity or guilt, stress, and physical health problems (insomnia, headaches, and so on). It is not uncommon for stalking, especially in domestic cases, to lead to physical violence.
New revelations on stalking
The researchers who studied stalking in Lithuania conducted a representative public opinion survey (with over 1,500 respondents), analyzed a hundred stalking cases from between 2016 and 2020, interviewed over 200 representatives of law enforcement institutions that deal with stalking, and organized a discussion with aid providers and policymakers.
The researchers’ efforts to understand the stalking situation in Lithuania revealed that the victims usually try to solve the problem on their own: in the 2021 public opinion survey, 61% of respondents claimed that they did not report to anyone, 14% reported the stalking to the police, and 6% went to other institutions.
The analysis of court cases revealed that the absolute majority (90%) of the persecutors are men and that in 67% of all cases the stalkers were former or current partners. Stalkers were subject to remand measures – either a written promise not to leave an area or pre-trial detention.
In Lithuanian case law, the courts would examine the following factors of stalking: the perception of intimidation, the systematicity of actions and indirect threats, terrorization, appearance at places where the victim is expected to be, tailing victims, invading their living space, damaging property, seeking to damage their reputation, observing them using GPS, audio, and video devices, and so on.
The use of digital technologies greatly expands the variety of stalking behavior: social networks and smart apps give stalkers more ways to monitor their victim, contact their relatives, damage their reputation, and so on.
Attitudes must change both in court and in public
The researchers of the Institute of Law drew attention to the fact that in some earlier court cases, behavior exhibiting elements of stalking was treated simply as quarreling people sorting out their relationship, family conflicts, or pranks in poor taste – aka an issue not appropriate to be dealt with under criminal law.
However, cases following the new law are taking a different direction, with the courts claiming that such behavior should not be treated as a quarrel and instead be considered a form of dangerous mental abuse. Thus, stalking is gradually coming to be treated as behavior that causes serious harm to the victim, being increasingly recognized as a particular form of violence.
Stalking was criminalized in the fall of 2021, punishable if the victim proves that the activity had negative consequences, for example, that stalking forced the victim to change their place of residence, job, educational institution, or that it caused some other effect. However, this is difficult to prove in court, especially anything relating to mental abuse, and there is a dearth of case law to rely on as the law is new.
How stalking reports are dealt with in Lithuania
In Lithuania, a person experiencing stalking must first contact the police, who may launch a pre-trial investigation together with the prosecution. If the investigation is not dropped, the case is later referred to court for trial.
The accused may be acquitted or receive a punishment commensurate with their actions – either a prison sentence or a sentence to be served in public, under probation.
"It is very important to continue working on stalking cases even after sentencing: providing the necessary professional assistance to the victim, making sure they’re safe, and working with the stalker to help them overcome their mental issues so that there are no more stalking incidents in the future," said Dr. Laurinaitytė.
This article was prepared based on information provided by the Digital Ethics Center.
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