msnbc.com news services
updated 2/22/2012 12:45:59 PM ET 2012-02-22T17:45:59

Germany should do away with the practice of surgical castration of sex offenders, the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee recommended Wednesday, calling the procedure degrading to the convicted criminals.

In a report released in Strasbourg, France, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture acknowledged that the procedure is voluntary and carried out only under extremely well-controlled circumstances.

Nonetheless, the committee said it still has "fundamental objections," pointing to its "irreversible physical effects."

It urged an end to the practice, saying that "surgical castration of detained sexual offenders could easily be considered as amounting to degrading treatment."

"Therefore, the Committee recommends that immediate steps be taken by the relevant authorities to discontinue in all German Laender (federal states) the application of surgical castration in the context of treatment of sexual offenders," it added.

It said no official statistics on castrations are available but, according to information it has collected, "fewer than five per year" were performed in Germany.

A less invasive chemical procedure, that blocks the creation of testosterone, is a mandatory treatment for offenders in some U.S. states and in Poland. Other countries let sex criminals choose this form of chemical castration.

Few reoffend
The German government said in a written reply that it is "currently being reviewed whether this issue should be discussed in the context of a debate" but doesn't commit to change the regulations.

The German government noted that surgical castration is seen as treatment rather than punishment. It said the procedure is strictly voluntary and the process can only be initiated by the sex offender himself, who must be at least 25.

Among other safeguards, an expert commission must advise the subject, and there is a waiting period between when the decision is made to have the procedure and when it is carried out, so a subject can change his mind.

The government cited a 1997 study of sex offenders who had been castrated, which indicated only a 3 percent recidivism rate. A control group whose petition for castration had been refused or retracted in the same period showed a 46 percent rate of reoffending.

The committee's recommendation came as part of a wider report on Germany, based on a two-week visit at the end of 2010.

'Highly controversial'
Tim Dalton, who led the delegation, told The Associated Press the committee's point is that in any individual case, there is no guarantee the procedure will prevent reoffending.

"It's a highly controversial issue. There are divided opinions on the subject — some justify it on the basis that the results validate the process," he said in a telephone interview from Dublin.

But the panel's "fundamental position is that it's not an appropriate response to the threat of reoffending to mutilate a person, which is in effect what is involved," he said.

In 2009, the committee criticized the Czech Republic for its use of surgical castration.

Other countries have been moving ahead with laws allowing chemical castration for sex offenders, which involves the administration of testosterone-suppressing hormones intended to curb sexual drive.

Russian lawmakers in October gave first-round approval to a bill that would impose chemical castration on repeat sex offenders. Poland legalized the procedure in 2009 for offenders who rape minors or close relatives.

Britain, Denmark and Sweden offer chemical castration drugs to sex offenders on a voluntary basis.

More from msnbc.com and NBC News:

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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