Thursday, February 08, 2007

Letter from Germany: Civil liberties v. security

Interesting article from the International Herald-Tribune ( on how Germany struggled with internal terrorist organizations such as the Red Army Faction. One of the prime ways, the Germans said, they were able to dry up support for the terrorists was to adhere to the rule of law and to stop the aggressive/overzealous security measures they established, curtailing civil liberties in the process. By doing so, the article argues, the Germans were able to dry up the legitimacy of the terrorist groups, and eventually they dried up and went away.

How ironic, then, that the United States could learn from the Germans about civil liberties ...


Judy Dempsey

Wednesday, February 7, 2007
When I first entered the headquarters of Germany's vast Treuhand building in 1992, the first thing that struck me was the security. It was very lax. Identification was checked, but bags were not searched. Visitors were rarely escorted.

Yet this was the government agency charged with privatizing the economy of the former communist East Germany. Its first boss, Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, had been gunned down just a few months earlier, apparently by the Red Army Faction.

Rohwedder was one of the last victims of a German terrorist movement that had horrified a wealthy and fairly complacent society while killing 34 people. Called the Baader-Meinhof gang after its founding members, Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader, the Red Army Faction had its roots in the 1968 student protest movement.

It moved quickly to waging an armed struggle against the capitalist system. This involved bank robberies, bomb attacks on government buildings and U.S. military sites, kidnappings and assassinations.

Rohwedder has returned to the news over the past few days because of the intense and emotional debate surrounding the fate of two leading Red Army Faction terrorists, Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar. Each has spent 24 years behind bars. Both are hoping to be freed this year.

Mohnhaupt, 57, is serving five life sentences plus 15 years for her involvement in the murders of a banker, a prosecutor and the president of the employer's federation. Unlike other Red Army Faction prisoners, she has never spoken to journalists, has never applied for clemency and has never expressed regret for her crimes.

In most countries, a terrorist with such a record would never stand a chance for parole. But in Germany, life sentences rarely mean life in prison.

"It's a humane principle," said Ernst Gottfried Mahrenholz, who throughout the 1980s was a judge and later vice president of Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court. "The fundamentals of our legal system are that human dignity means that even a person sentenced to life imprisonment must be given a perspective for freedom. A life sentence is reviewed after 15 years. Only if the perpetrators are considered dangerous and remain dangerous will they stay in prison."

Prosecutors also say it is time to show mercy because Mohnhaupt no longer poses a danger to society. Remarkably enough, her case is not controversial.

Klar, 54, is a different matter. He has two more years left before becoming eligible for parole under normal rules. Instead, he has asked President Horst Köhler to grant him a pardon. A decision is expected any day, as is the decision on Mohnhaupt's parole.

Klar, behind bars since late 1982, was convicted of 9 murders and on 11 counts of attempted murder.

Hartmut Nassauer, former interior minister of the state of Hesse, which was home to many of the Red Army Faction activists, says Klar should not be pardoned. "He has not distanced himself from his crimes," said Nassauer, now a member of the European Parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc. "I see no reason to pardon him."

When asked about a possible parole for Mohnhaupt, his attitude was completely different. He said individuals should be given the possibility of "resocialization." Besides, parole, unlike a pardon, was not about wiping the slate clean.

Köhler is already under considerable pressure from the police, who want Klar to remain behind bars. "He should not be pardoned," said Konrad Freiberg, chairman of the police union. "He committed cold-blooded murders. A lot of people suffered broken lives as a result. One should think of the victims. It would send the wrong signal if Köhler pardoned him."

Freiberg believes that Klar has not shown sufficient remorse for his crimes. Besides, he adds, there are several unresolved murders — including those of the Treuhand boss, Rohwedder; a senior diplomat, Gerold von Braunmühl, and a Deutsche Bank chairman, Alfred Herrhausen — and a pardon would make it more difficult for investigators to solve them.

Yet even if some cases have still to be cleared up, the Red Army Faction no longer exists. Its high point was in the 1970s, when parts of the leftist movement admired what they regarded as its daring and uncompromising actions against the state. It disbanded in 1998 after the last bit of support had evaporated.

The reason this happened was that Germany managed to regain its liberal instincts. In doing so, it robbed the Red Army Faction of its claim to legitimacy.

During the 1970s, the German state reacted harshly. It introduced emergency legislation and curbed civil liberties. It eavesdropped and arrested suspects at random. Jailed terrorists were denied access to their lawyers. Armored personnel carriers patrolled Bonn, then the seat of the government. Prison conditions for Red Army Faction members were awful. Klar was held in solitary confinement for seven years. Several terrorists committed suicide in prison, giving rise to speculation that they might have been murdered by state commandos.

Gerhart Baum, who was federal interior minister during the late 1970s and early 1980s at the height of the terror attacks, says today that the German state "overreacted with its repressive measures."

"During the 1970s, we made mistakes over the way we tried to control society," said Baum. But then, he added, the liberal instincts of society made their way back.

"The most important thing was that we did not lose the normality of society," said Baum. "We did not want to make strong security measures the norm.

"We started asking questions about why people joined such movements or committed such acts. The point was that we wanted to protect the rule of law. Maybe that eroded sympathy for them."

Asked whether there were lessons to be learned in dealing with other brands of terrorism, my German interlocutors were hesitant. But they all said that sticking to the rule of law was central.

"The state has to find a balance between civil liberties and security," Baum said. "Politicians should not use security for election purposes or clamp down at any opportunity. You don't win society over that way, as we saw three decades ago."


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