Castration of Czech sex offenders: Deterrent or torture?

This news story is CRAZY...and I don't even know how to sort out my thoughts yet. I will post reflections later. For now - read it for yourself so we can have a dialogue about it later.

PRAGUE: Pavel remembers the violent night sweats two days before the murder. He went to see a family doctor, who said they would go away. But after viewing a Bruce Lee martial arts film, he said, he felt uncontrollable sexual desires. He invited a 12-year-old neighbor home. Then he stabbed the boy repeatedly.

His psychiatrist says Pavel derived sexual pleasure from the violence.

More than 20 years have passed. Pavel, then 18, spent seven years in prison and five years in a psychiatric institution. During his last year in prison, he asked to be surgically castrated. Having his testicles removed, he said, was like draining the gasoline from a car hard-wired to crash. A large, dough-faced man, he is sterile and has forsaken marriage, romantic relationships and sex, he said. His life revolves around a Catholic charity, where he is a gardener.

"I can finally live knowing that I am no harm to anybody," he said during an interview at a McDonald's here, as children played loudly nearby. "I am living a productive life. I want to tell people that there is help."

He would not give his last name for fear of being hounded.

Whether castration can help rehabilitate violent sex offenders has come under new scrutiny after the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee last month called surgical castration "invasive, irreversible and mutilating" and demanded the Czech Republic stop offering the procedure to violent sex offenders. Other critics said that castration threatened to lead society down a dangerous road toward eugenics.

The Czech Republic has allowed at least 94 prisoners to be surgically castrated over the past decade. It is the only country in Europe that uses the procedure for sex offenders. Czech psychiatrists supervising the treatment - a one-hour operation that involves removal of the tissue that produces testosterone - insist that it is the most foolproof way to tame sexual urges in dangerous predators.

Surgical castration has been a means of social control for centuries. In ancient China, eunuchs were trusted to serve the imperial family inside the palace grounds; in Italy several centuries ago, youthful male choir members were castrated to preserve their high singing voices.

These days it can also be used to treat testicular cancer and some advanced cases of prostate cancer.

Now, more countries in Europe are considering mandating or allowing chemical castration for violent sex offenders. There is intense debate over whose rights take precedence: those of violent sex offenders, who could be subjected to a punishment that many consider cruel, or those of society, which expects protection from sexual predators.

Poland is expected to become the first nation of the European Union to give judges the right to impose chemical castration on at least some convicted pedophiles, using hormonal drugs to curb sexual appetite; the impetus for the change was the arrest of a 45-year-old man in September who had fathered two children by his young daughter.

Spain is considering plans to offer chemical castration after a convicted pedophile killed a child.

Last year, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, signed legislation requiring courts to order chemical castration for offenders convicted a second time of certain sex crimes against children.

In the Czech Republic, the issue was brought home last month when Antonin Novak, 43, was sentenced to life in prison for raping and killing Jakub Simanek, a 9-year-old boy who disappeared last May.

Novak, who had served four and a half years in prison for sexual offenses in Slovakia, had been undergoing outpatient treatment but had failed to show up several months before the killing. Advocates of surgical castration argued that had he been castrated, the tragedy could have been prevented.

Hynek Blasko, Jakub's father, expressed indignation that human rights groups were putting the rights of criminals ahead of those of victims. "My personal tragedy is that my son is in heaven, and he is never coming back, and all I have left of him is 1.5 kilograms of ashes," he said in an interview. "No one wants to touch the rights of the pedophiles, but what about the rights of a 9-year-old boy with his life ahead of him?"

Ales Butala, a Slovenian human rights lawyer who led the Council of Europe's delegation to the Czech Republic, argued that surgical castration was unethical, since it was not medically necessary and deprived castrated men of the right to reproduce. He also challenged its effectiveness, saying that the council's committee had discovered three cases of castrated Czech sex offenders who had gone on to commit violent crimes, including pedophilia and attempted murder.

In its report, the committee also said that it had found cases of first-time, nonviolent offenders who had been surgically castrated, including mentally retarded men and exhibitionists. Although the procedure is voluntary, Butala said that he believed some offenders feel they have no choice.

"Sex offenders are requesting castration in hope of getting released from a life of incarceration," he said. "Is that really free and informed consent?"

But government health officials and some Czech psychiatrists counter that castration can be effective and argue that, by seeking to outlaw the practice, the council is putting potential victims at risk.

Dr. Martin Holly, a leading sexologist and psychiatrist who is director of the Psychiatric Hospital Bohnice in Prague, said none of the nearly 100 sex offenders who had been physically castrated had committed further offenses.

A Danish study of 900 castrated sex offenders in the 1960s suggested the rate of repeat offenses dropped after surgical castration to 2.3 percent from 80 percent.

But human rights groups counter that such studies are inconclusive since they rely on self-reporting by sex offenders. Other psychiatric experts argue that sexual pathology is in the brain and cannot be cured by surgery.

Holly, who has counseled convicted sex offenders for four decades, stressed that the procedure was being allowed only for repeat violent offenders who suffered from severe sexual disorders. Moreover, he said, the procedure is undertaken only with the informed consent of the patient and with the approval of an independent committee of psychiatric and legal experts.

Jaroslav Novak, chief of urology at the Faculty Hospital Na Bulovce in Prague, said: "This is not a very common procedure. We carry it out maybe once every one to two years at most."

In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that involuntary surgical castration constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Several states, including Texas, Florida and California, now allow or mandate chemical castration for certain convicted sex offenders.

Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, argued that chemical castration was less physically harmful than surgery and that it provided a safeguard, because a psychiatrist could inform the courts or the police if the patient ordered to undergo treatment failed to show up. A surgically castrated patient, Berlin said, could order testosterone over the Internet.

For Hynek Blasko, the murdered boy's father, neither form of castration is the answer. "These people must be under permanent detention where they can be monitored," he said. "There has to be a difference between the rights of the victim and the perpetrator."

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