Imminent need for state to combat online grooming

CYPRUS was criticised on Monday for having inadequate laws to deal with online solicitation and grooming of children on the internet following the recent case of two underage teenage girls who say they were victims of sexual abuse.

The Hope For Children UNCRC Policy Centre called on lawmakers to urgently ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, or Lanzarote Convention as it is known.

‘Grooming’ is defined as a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of a child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure.

According to surveys done by the EU Kids Online survey, Cyprus was last year classified as ’higher use, some risk’ country.

In Cyprus, the average age of first internet use is 10 and around one third of Cypriot children visit chat rooms, share files, blog and spend time in a virtual world compared to the European average of less than a quarter.

Most children in Cyprus go online in their own bedroom rather than in a common area where parents can more easily check what they are doing online.

EU Kids Online also identified that parents in Cyprus are not aware of what their child may be encountering when online, and compared to the other European countries they were the least aware of their children meeting people they had first met online.

The vast majority of Cypriot children have a social networking profile and even though they may keep their profile private, they still accept invitations from strangers while at the same time display abundant information about themselves, the report said.

Although there is awareness among the authorities of the risks and a helpline for children, the law itself is lacking what is needed to combat the 21st century nature of grooming, according to the report.

There are a number of provisions in the Cypriot penal code which deal with offences against children. Defilement of a girl under the age of 13 is a felony and punishable by imprisonment for life, but defilement of a girl aged between the ages of 13 and 17 years is only considered to be a misdemeanour. In case of the latter, it is a defence if it is proved to the court that the accused had reasonable cause to believe that the girl was of or above the age of 17.

The abduction of a woman in order to marry her or have sexual intercourse with her against her will is punishable as a felony with imprisonment for seven years. Yet, if the girl is unmarried, under 16 years and was taken without the consent of her parents or legal guardians, that offence is only considered a misdemeanour.

“For raising criminal liability in the cases above it is necessary to prove that the individual at least attempted to commit one of these offences. There are commonly known and inherent difficulties when ascertaining the stage at which a preparatory act becomes an attempt to commit an actual offence,” said the organisation.

“If the police are shadowing a planned meeting between the perpetrator and the child, then in order to get their evidence of incitement to commit a sexual offence, they might need to allow the perpetrator to meet the child, with the risk that a sexual assault could occur – which is totally unacceptable.”

The report says that conduct which could be successfully prosecuted under Swedish or British law, are not punishable in Cyprus.

By criminalising any meeting following grooming online preparatory behaviour could be better tackled .

“As the law stands today it is especially difficult to constitute any of the existing crimes in cases of online solicitation and grooming of children,” it added.

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