Defending Felons' Human Rights: European Court Ruling Forces Release of Rapists and Murderers

By Dietmar Hipp and

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that German laws on preventive detention of dangerous criminals is a violation of their human rights. Now Germany will be forced to release almost 200 felons, including convicted rapists and multiple murderers. The first repeat offender has already been released.

In the village of Heinsberg-Randerath, citizens threatened to take the law into their own hands in protest against a sex offender who had been released despite having been classified as a danger to society (March 2009 photo). A new ruling by the European Court of Human Rights will mean that Germany is forced to release violent criminals currently being held in preventive detention. Zoom
DPA

In the village of Heinsberg-Randerath, citizens threatened to take the law into their own hands in protest against a sex offender who had been released despite having been classified as a danger to society (March 2009 photo). A new ruling by the European Court of Human Rights will mean that Germany is forced to release violent criminals currently being held in preventive detention.

Walter H. spent about 37 years, well over half of his life, behind bars. He was sent to prison for a sexually motivated homicide as a young man. He later served time for attempted rape while fully intoxicated and for aggravated battery. He had been incarcerated in a prison in southwestern Germany since 2007, after a court ordered his preventive detention on the grounds that he presented a danger to the general public.

But on Wednesday of last week, shortly after 4 p.m., the doors of the prison were suddenly opened for the man, who had been classified as a likely repeat offender. He was given €50 ($62) in spending money. Then, two police officers and a parole officer took him to a hotel, paid for four nights in advance -- and left him to his own devices.

The first thing H. did was to call the people who had been fighting for his release for years. Weeping with joy, he told his defense attorney, Michael Rehberger: "I'm out. I'm in a hotel."

But his attorney has mixed feelings. Of course, he says, he was very happy for his client, and yet he believes that the whole thing is "lunacy." According to the attorney, H. was released "with almost no preparation" and has not even been placed under so-called supervision of conduct, whereby H. would be subject to the control and assistance of his probation officer. Cases like this, says the attorney, involve "people who are basically unable to live in the real world."

Heading for Freedom

H. owes his freedom to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which ruled last Tuesday that some of Germany's rules on preventive detention are in violation of human rights. Less than 24 hours later, the Federal Court of Justice in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe announced: "The defendant in this case shall be released immediately."

Many other offenders classified as dangerous could soon follow H. into freedom, including notorious burglars and people convicted of fraud, as well as serial rapists and multiple murderers. Thomas Ullenbruch, a criminal judge and expert on preventive detention in the southwestern German town of Emmendingen, has calculated that around 160 offenders in preventive detention could now immediately invoke the Strasbourg ruling, directly or indirectly -- a much higher figure than the previously reported number of 70 offenders. A further 40 criminals could do so in the next few years.

The Strasbourg court has taken a clear position in the conflict between the need to protect citizens from criminals and the offenders' fundamental legal rights. But its ruling has created a huge problem for politicians and the courts, which now have very little time to come up with a legally binding solution that takes both the interests of citizens and the rights of offenders into account.

The federal and state justice ministers are determined to avoid situations like the one that unfolded last year in the village of Heinsberg-Randerath, near the western city of Aachen, where citizens threatened to take the law into their own hands and held vigils in protest against a sex offender who had been released despite having been classified as a danger to society.

'Fiasco'

The only question is how such situations can be avoided. A heated debate has already erupted in Germany between conservatives and liberals over the consequences of the Strasbourg ruling.

Bavarian Justice Minister Beate Merk, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), called the decision "a fiasco." Her counterpart in Lower Saxony, Christian Democrat Bernd Busemann, even announced his intention to prevent the release of offenders. "I cannot take the responsibility for this," he said.

They are supported by the head of the police union GdP, Konrad Freiberg, who warned that the Strasbourg ruling could have "dramatic" consequences for security. He announced that the police would not be able to cope with new problems relating to these offenders. Anyone who called the police now to ask that such offenders be monitored, said Freiberg, would be told: "That isn't possible."

The fact that things have even reached this point is an embarrassment for both politicians and the justice system. The federal government has tightened the rules for preventive detention six times since 1998, usually after horrific crimes were committed.

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Graphic: Preventive detention in Germany Zoom
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Graphic: Preventive detention in Germany



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