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Germany: Coalition Parties Agree On Antiterror Measures

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's governing coalition has agreed on a package of antiterrorism measures that would toughen existing laws and introduce new restrictions. The Social Democrats and their junior partners, the Greens, agreed to the measures after difficult discussions over the weekend. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Berlin that what emerged is a watered-down version of an antiterror package originally proposed by Interior Minister Otto Schily.

Berlin, 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the radical left-wing "Red Army Faction" was destroyed in the 1970s, Germany has been mostly free of international terrorism. But Germans were shocked to discover in September that several of the terrorists responsible for the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon had lived in Hamburg for years without arousing suspicion.

Interior Minister Otto Schily says he knows why this happened. He says Germans became lax because of the absence of immediate danger and failed to recognize the new threats. He says it's too easy for terrorists or criminals to enter and leave the country. And in a package of proposals totaling some 114 pages, Schily has put forth stringent new measures to assure that Germany never again leaves itself so vulnerable.

A Schily supporter, Karl-Heinz Mannheim, says those who are alarmed at Schily's approach are unrealistic. He says they want protection but shy away from measures to ensure it: "On the one hand, the public rightly expects the [law-enforcement] services to be successful. However, the services must be provided with the means and the legal power which will enable them to work successfully."

Schily offered his ideas to the Social Democratic government and its coalition partners, the Greens. He told journalists he expected quick approval by the political parties so that the package could be presented to the cabinet on 7 November.

Instead, Schily's proposals brought a chorus of opposition from those who believed that Germany's hard-won, post-war civil liberties were under attack.

Criticism from the Greens and civil-rights groups had been expected. But the strongest criticism came in a joint statement by the official society of the nation's judges and the professional association of constitutional lawyers. The national agency responsible for the protection of citizen's personal data also strongly condemned some proposals.

Eberhard Kempf, the chairman of the criminal law section of the Association of German Lawyers, told journalists: "The proposals treat all citizens as being under suspicion. That cannot be the goal of the government."

An expert in constitutional law, Erhard Denninger, told a meeting in Frankfurt: "If the government pushes through everything it has proposed, we'll have a surveillance state -- a 'Big Brother' state." He said the legislation would "sweep away much of the culture of the rule of law which has been developed over several decades."

The head of the national agency for protecting personal data of citizens, Joachim Jakob, said Schily's proposals were extreme: "In my view, Schily has shot far over the target. And he has not observed the dividing line between the need for security and the civil rights of the citizens."

Under pressure, the interior minister agreed to soften some of the proposals. He also agreed to place a time limit of five years on some measures seen as infringing on personal liberties.

The package to be sent to the cabinet included five main measures. One expands the jurisdiction of the internal security service. In future it will have the right to observe groups or individuals suspected of terrorist activity or trying to disrupt relations between countries. The internal security service will also have the authority to demand direct access to bank records and accounts of suspected persons. The postal service can be asked to note where a suspect sends mail and the return address on the mail he receives. At the insistence of civil-rights groups, these measures must be reviewed after five years to see whether they should be continued.

Another measure calls for security checks on those working for organizations that could be useful for terrorists. They include pharmaceutical companies, power plants, the railways, the post office, and banks. This measure is also considered an intrusion on civil liberties and must be reviewed after five years.

Changes to the law on aliens will allow Germany to withdraw residence permits and expel foreigners who endanger Germany's democracy or who engage in political violence. They may also be expelled if they belong to a group which supports international terrorism.

This measure was approved only after the interior minister agreed that it should be implemented only if the individual actually engages in these practices. Mere suspicion is not enough.

One of the most hotly debated measures was Schily's proposal to broaden the powers of the federal criminal office. He proposed that it should be allowed to initiate an investigation even when there is no concrete suspicion against an individual or group.

The interior minister was forced to withdraw this proposal after pressure from judges and lawyers. However, the federal criminal office will be given more powers to track members of foreign terrorist organizations.

Schily's controversial plan to include fingerprints in all new German passports was also abandoned under pressure from the Greens. However, the party accepted his basic argument that passports should be made more secure to guard against the possibility of theft and misuse.

Parliament will now be asked to consider various options. Fingerprints in the passport remain a possibility, but another option is to photograph the eyes. In practice it would be a photograph of the iris, which is unique for each individual. Some experts have also suggested replacing the present photograph in the passport with a so-called biometric photo. This notes 1,700 separate points on the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the mouth and the chin. Scanners at border crossings would check the photograph against the face of the passport holder.

Critics argue that altering the passport system has to be a long-term project. Current passports are valid for 10 years and it would be impractical to replace them quickly with more secure documents.

Political analysts say the recent modifications mean that the law will almost certainly be approved by parliament in November. However, some civil-rights groups remain concerned the measures give too much power to law-enforcement officials and put civil liberties under pressure.

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