The World From Berlin Terror Camp Law Dismissed as 'Useless'

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries has proposed making a stay in a terrorist training camp a crime -- but only if there is a concrete plan to carry out an attack. German commentators says the draft law is next to useless.

A stay in a terrorist training camp is to become a criminal offense under a new proposed law in Germany -- but only if an attack is planned.

A stay in a terrorist training camp is to become a criminal offense under a new proposed law in Germany -- but only if an attack is planned.

The debate about how to deal with the threat of terror has heated up in Germany since the recent foiling of a home-grown bomb plot. However every proposal to introduce stricter anti-terror laws has so far proved extremely controversial.

And the latest plan by German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries is no exception. Zypries presented a draft law Tuesday in which she proposed making a stay in a terrorist training camp a criminal offense. Apprentice terrorists could now face up to 10 years in prison should they take a course in jihad. Preparing attacks and building bombs will also become offenses punishable with sentences of up to 10 years under the new law.

There's just one catch: According to Zypries' proposal, a stay in a training camp would only be a crime if the wannabe terrorist actually plans an attack after their return -- simply visiting a camp will continue to not be a crime.

The new draft law was inspired by the recent arrests in Germany of three men accused of planning massive bomb attacks at Frankfurt Airport and US military installations. The three suspects had all trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan. At the time, there was criticism of the fact that visiting terrorist camps was not actually a crime in Germany.

Zypries' proposal is seen as a compromise intended to satisfy the two parties in Germany's grand coalition government. The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have called for a tougher approach to fighting terror, while the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), to which Zypries belongs, are concerned about a possible assault on civil liberties.

Although Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who belongs to the CDU, praised Zypries' proposal, other politicians were more critical. Berlin's state Interior Minister, Ehrhart Körting, who belongs to the SPD, said simply training in a terrorist camp was reason enough to be punished, even if there were no concrete plans for an attack. Wolfgang Bosbach, the deputy floor leader of the Christian Democrats, was also critical, saying it would be impossible to put Zypries' proposal into practice. Zypries, however, defended her approach, saying that it was not an attitude or a particular skill that should be punished, but rather the concrete preparation of a terrorist attack.

The latest proposal comes amid an ongoing debate in Germany about how to combat terrorism -- a debate that is leading to tension within the coalition government. Another controversial issue is the question of whether the military should be allowed to shoot down passenger airplanes that have been hijacked for 9/11-style attacks. Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, is due to debate the issue Wednesday.

Interior Minister Schäuble has already prepared proposals for a change in the constitution that would allow airplanes to be shot down, according to a report in the German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse. According to Schäuble's draft proposal, which the newspaper claims to have seen, shooting down an airplane would be legal even if there were innocent passengers on board.

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said earlier this week that he would order fighter pilots to shoot down a hijacked airplane -- even though such a tactic was already declared illegal in a 2006 ruling by Germany's Constitutional Court. Vice Chancellor Franz Müntefering criticized Jung's suggestion in remarks to the Passauer Neue Presse Wednesday, saying the defense minister had "crossed the line" with his comments.

Commentators writing in Germany's main newspapers Wednesday were universal in their skepticism about Zypries' new law, which they say will be unusable in practice and is motivated by purely political concerns.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"In practice Zypries' bill is toothless because it envisages that a stay in a training camp will only be punishable if someone is acquiring these talents in order to later commit a criminal offence. Those who go there just to learn a little bombing and murder in case it might come in handy later are exempt from punishment, just like before. Zypries says she does not want to punish anybody who only wants to study the Koran and do a bit of sport. With such statements, she lays herself open to accusations of, at the least, naiveté, if not belittling the danger."

"Nobody wants to criminalize young people who want to go to boy scout camp and crawl around in the forest. And nobody wants to stop young Muslims from learning the Koran and developing their faith. But when that happens in camps in Pakistan, then the suspicion is justifiable that it doesn't have so much to do with training the body and spirit, but rather with damage to life and limb. It is hard to understand why the justice minister is providing such a get-out clause in her law."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Zypries has included a caveat in her package of measures which renders it to a large extent useless: Neither mixing poisons nor making bombs should be punishable if it cannot also be proven that the intention thereby is to cause mischief."

"The term 'criminal act' alone makes it clear that one can only be punished for acts, not for opinions or intentions. The German constitution puts that in the forefront, when it lists citizens' fundamental rights. But it certainly does not require that the assumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty is taken so far that security authorities would have to act the fool regarding obvious preparations for terrorist attacks, simply looking on without doing anything until the perpetrators actually buckle up their explosive belts. The criminal act begins much earlier, and the constitutional state has to unambiguously define exactly what such an act consists of. Now that is a task for the justice minister."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Zypries' draft law suffers from the fact that it is trying to bridge the gap between ideological misgivings about harder security measures and strategic arguments in their favor. The fact that visits to terror camps will be made a crime, but only if the jihad training is used to prepare an attack, is an all-too-clever compromise. An intention to carry out an attack will be almost impossible to prove in actual judicial practice."

"The justice minister's draft may well succeed in alleviating the discomfort many Social Democrats feel about the issue of domestic security. But for practitioners in the fight against terrorism, the new regulations do not bring any significant progress."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Zypries' bill only closes gaps in the law which have so far played no role in practice. It would neither have helped the police in their recent investigation against the German jihad cell nor prevented last year's failed suitcase bomb attacks. The bill is therefore only evidence of the fact that the SPD feels itself pushed onto the defensive in questions of security policy."

"It was significant that Zypries on Tuesday could not name a single case in which the new criminal regulations would have been necessary. What she is really doing here is trying to meet the need for political symbolism."

-- David Gordon Smith, 1:00 p.m. CET


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