Weatherman's Rape Trial Takes Germany by Storm

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Germany celebrity weatherman Jörg Kachelmann has denied allegations of rape made by an ex-girlfriend

Jörg Kachelmann has made a living forecasting the weather. But now Germany's most famous weatherman finds himself at the center of a media storm with the launch of a trial in which he's accused of raping his longtime girlfriend.

On Monday, the 52-year-old TV presenter appeared in court in the city of Mannheim in southwest Germany after the proceedings were postponed last week. Ever since Kachelmann was arrested at the Frankfurt airport on March 20 on his way back from covering the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the case has gripped the country, with tabloid newspapers and TV stations raking over the lurid details of his private life. He was held in custody for over four months until he was released from prison at the end of July pending his trial. Kachelmann denies the charges.

German prosecutors allege that just after midnight on Feb. 9, Kachelmann held a 3-in. kitchen knife to his girlfriend's throat and forced her to have sex. Prosecutors say he threatened to kill his girlfriend, a 36-year-old radio presenter who has not been publicly named and who claims to have been with Kachelmann for 11 years, when she confronted him with her suspicions that he was cheating on her. During the trial, which is set to last until the end of October, the court will focus its attention on one key question: Did Kachelmann brutally rape his girlfriend or did she trump up the charges as revenge for his alleged affairs?

Andreas Grossmann, public prosecutor at Mannheim, concedes that the prosecution faces an uphill battle. "Rape allegations are difficult to prove, as you have the victim's statement against the defendant's word and there are often no witnesses, like in this case," he tells TIME. Kachelmann maintains that he had consensual sex with his accuser. At a court appearance on March 24, he told reporters: "I'm innocent, that's all I can say at the moment." After he was released from prison on July 29, German coverage of the story reached fever pitch and Kachelmann spoke out in a series of media interviews, determined to give his version of events. "I'm sure that I didn't do everything right in my life. And I wasn't monogamous in every phase of my life," he said in an interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel. "But I haven't committed any crime."

Kachelmann shot to fame with the weather service Meteomedia, which he set up in 1990. The Swiss meteorologist made it his mission to explain the weather to Germans in a way that was entertaining and energetic, using colorful charts and videos. He soon became a household name in Germany, once famously picking up the studio cat that had strolled onto set during his segment and cuddling it as he continued to present the weather.

Given Kachelmann's celebrity status and the salaciousness of the allegations, German tabloids have been vying to outdo each other in reporting the case. Even best-selling U.S. author John Grisham is said to have commented that the story could be turned into a novel. "The Kachelmann affair is a media sensation and it's become the trial of the year," says Uwe Wolff, a Berlin-based litigation p.r. expert. But, he adds, that's not necessarily good for the weatherman. "This has been a p.r. disaster — Kachelmann should have just kept silent, stayed in a forest somewhere and read a book," says Wolff.

According to Germany's leading feminist Alice Schwarzer, publisher of the women's magazine Emma, the trial has triggered a heated public debate in the nation over whether forced sex within a relationship constitutes rape and has also raised questions over the credibility of rape victims. "Experts estimate that at least 90,000 rapes are committed each year in Germany — one in two perpetrators is a husband, lover or ex-husband," she tells TIME. "But just one in 12 rape cases are reported to the police and only one in seven perpetrators are convicted. Rape still goes unpunished in Germany," says Schwarzer.

In court on Monday, Kachelmann's attorney revealed that his client wouldn't testify in person during the trial. Prosecutor Lars-Torben Oltrogge read out the charges: the weatherman stands accused of aggravated rape and grievous bodily harm. His former girlfriend is due to take the stand in mid-October; before that, Kachelmann's other ex-girlfriends are expected to be hauled before the court.

As for Kachelmann, he hasn't appeared on TV since his arrest in March. And, with a maximum 15-year prison sentence hanging over his head, it seems his future is as unpredictable as the weather.