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Germans aghast over cannibal trial

Meiwes filmed himself dismembering the victim before he ate him.
Meiwes filmed himself dismembering the victim before he ate him.

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KASSEL, Germany (CNN) -- A five-judge panel has sentenced a self-confessed cannibal to eight and a half years for manslaughter. CNN's Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers explains the background to the case.

Q: How did this case come to light?

A: This case of cannibalism would never have occurred without the Internet. Armin Meiwes openly advertised on the Internet to satisfy his appetite for human flesh. But it was the net which brought him down. When one Austrian discovered Meiwes' advertisements on the Internet they reported him to the police.

Q: What are the legal implications of his case?

A: Meiwes was tried on two charges. The most serious charge was murder for sexual pleasure which would have carried a maximum sentence of 15 years. The second charge was disturbing the peace of the dead. In Meiwes' case, that amounted to butchering and devouring 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of his victim Bernd Juergen Brandes. Meiwes' attorney had argued for conviction on a lesser charge of killing on demand, a kind of euthanasia. That would have carried a maximum sentence of five years. Germany has no statute forbidding cannibalism.

Q: What is the reaction of Germans?

A: Most Germans are aghast yet fascinated at the idea of a cannibal in their midst. This is not supposed to happen in a tidy, democratically ordered German society. And yet it did. Meiwes' cannibalism has probably scarred the people of Kassel, for some of them in ways we could never imagine. It has been front-page news throughout the trial, especially the tabloids. One previous headline read: This is Armin -- he has gobbled up Bernd from Berlin.

Q: Is this a unique problem?

A: Definitely not. Meiwes testified under oath that he participated in at least 430 cannibal Web sites and chat rooms. When he advertised on the Internet for volunteers to be eaten, cannibalized, there were at least 204 volunteers. The problem is no one knows how many people around the world fantasize about cannibalism, but it is only one short step across the border from fantasy to reality and Meiwes may be just one of thousands who took the step.

Q: Is this a uniquely German case?

A: Definitely not. Historically there have been two kinds of cannibalism. Killing and cannibalizing another human being for food -- that has happened in every human society since the dawn of history. In the 12th century, cannibalism in Egypt was widespread. In more modern times, in the great Stalin-induced famine of the 1930s, there were reports of widespread cannibalism in Ukraine.

Brandes had traveled from Berlin after answering Meiwes' advert.
Brandes had traveled from Berlin after answering Meiwes' advert.

And again after World War II in the Soviet Union when food was very scarce there were renewed reports of cannibalism. No country has escaped cannibalism in some form. In the U.S. the native American tribes, particularly the Hurons and Mohawks, reportedly indulged in cannibalism. In 1846 the Donner Party trapped in California's Sierra Mountains survived the winter eating each other. And in 1972 in a plane crash in the Andes, the passengers survived by devouring the pilot.

A second form of cannibalism has manifested itself historically where one person consumes another sometimes to possess the qualities of the person killed. Psychiatrists testified in the Meiwes trial that he killed to consume the flesh of another man so that he would have a replacement inside him for a close male relative who had left home. Primordial warriors throughout history have often eaten the flesh of their killed enemies to possess their spirit. Indeed on the first Crusade, Europe's Christian crusaders were reported to have eaten their Muslim victims.

Q: Is the case likely to bring any changes?

A: Experts have told CNN there has been cannibalism since the dawn of human history and they predict it will continue.

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