Four years for being an accessory to murder. That was the sentence that a state court in Stuttgart handed down on Friday to Verena Becker, a 59-year-old former member of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The left-wing terrorist group, which was allied with Palestinian terrorists and officially disbanded in 1998, killed 34 people and injured scores more in bomb attacks and assassinations targeting top German civil servants and corporate executives as well as US military installations in strikes that shocked the world in the 1970s and '80s.
The sentence was relatively light, but that's a good thing. What's not at all good, though, is that public prosecutors completely failed in their efforts to clear up the circumstances surrounding the murder at issue: On April 7, 1977, German Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback was shot dead in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe along with his driver and bodyguard.
The failure doesn't result from a lack of effort. Prosecutors reopened the case against Becker, a practitioner of alternative medicine from Berlin, in September 2010. Since then, the trial has been heard on a total of 97 days and involved the testimony of more than 160 witnesses and eight experts. Compared, however, to the amount of energy that has gone into all of this, the knowledge gained from it has been astonishingly slim.
Of course, some comfort can be taken from the fact that things were fairly civilized in the courtroom. It wasn't quite that way in late 1977, when Becker first went on trial in Stuttgart's Stammheim prison for shooting at police officers during her arrest in May 1977. When sentenced to life in prison, Becker lashed out at the judges, branding them "fascists" and "assholes." This time, she kept her silence.
In the 1970s, a windowless multi-purpose hall in the prison that had been specially built for the trials of the RAF's founders became known as the Stammheim State Court. But the Federal Prosecutors Office has learned a few things over the years. Back then, their usual trial tactic was to get all RAF members convicted based on a theory of guilt by association. This time around, however, they acknowledged that Becker was not the shooter in the murder from the outset.
Lives Lost, Lives Destroyed
Michael Buback, the son of the murdered prosecutor, added some emotional moments to the trial. In a statement before the court, the chemistry professor from Göttingen admitted to feeling "attacked, insulted and disparaged" by federal prosecutors. What's more, he accused investigators of having held a "protective hand" over Becker, though he failed to provide any concrete evidence to back his heated charges.
Of course, one can't hold Buback's anger against him, but one also can't agree with his speculations. From the very beginning, Buback has only put his faith in gut feelings about what the truth was: that Becker was the one who fired the shots that killed his father in Karlsruhe. He based this feeling on the statements of some highly dubious witnesses. In the statement he delivered when the trial was closing, he stated that: "For me, the verdict is meaningless." Despite believing that Becker killed his father, he said he didn't want her to be convicted of it.
Although Becker was ultimately determined to be complicit in the murder, one should welcome the fact that her sentence is relatively mild and that she probably won't have to spend more time behind bars. Day in and day out, Becker has been confronted with her own botched life. In 1972, the first bombing attack she was involved in led to the death of an innocent bystander. During her active time with the RAF, people that she has repeatedly said were unknown to her killed Buback and the two men with him. While in solitary confinement, she broke down and betrayed her RAF comrades to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency. When she confessed this to another woman in the RAF, she offered to commit suicide. Although her fellow RAF inmates told her not to kill herself, they ostracized her from their circle. Then, she -- ironically enough, the only high-value RAF member to ever turn state's evidence to the BfV -- was put on trial a second time. By that time, she was already chronically ill. Without a doubt, hers has been a sad career.
Despite its agreeable verdict, the Becker trial leaves behind a bad aftertaste. Germany's Federal Interior Ministry insists that portions of the BfV files on Becker will remain confidential, as will passages in the documents related to when she was pardoned in 1989 by then German President Richard von Weizsäcker. All of this incomprehensible secretiveness has only contributed to fostering more speculation -- and not from just Michael Buback.
The Only Way to Get at the Truth
Federal prosecutors regrettably went into the trial with a strategic goal: They wanted to see their old charges affirmed -- particularly those regarding Knut Folkers and Christian Klar, two other RAF members accused of involvement in the attack on Buback. But these goals contributed nothing to the search for the truth.
Indeed, the most important lesson to be drawn from the Becker trial is this: The scalpel of criminal law is not the right tool to use when looking for historical truths about the RAF. From the very beginning, federal prosecutors' futile attempts to use the threat of coercive detention to get former RAF terrorists to talk has only had the opposite of its desired effect. Even former RAF members who have long since condemned the group's practices have continuously joined in the united front of silence.
Walter Venedey, the Berlin-based lawyer who admirably defended Becker with his Frankfurt-based colleague Wolfgang Euler, is correct when he says that he considers it "very improbable" that the Buback murder will be solved anytime soon. Speaking of the court, he said that: "What we have here is not a truth commission."
Both now, as in the past, the only chance of bringing any clarity to the many unsolved RAF crimes would be to offer a deal: truth for freedom, testimony in exchange for amnesty. Given such a deal, not only former terrorists, but also politicians and police officers would testify to the best of their knowledge and belief on what they had done during the fiercest domestic conflict in the history of postwar Germany without being forced to fear renewed criminal prosecution. The only problem is that having such a "truth commission" would violate German legal principles regarding mandatory prosecution. What's more, politicians don't have the courage needed to push through such an unorthodox idea in the face of public protests.
A Persistent Enigma
No one can say for sure whether the trial that ended today against Becker will be the last major trial involving a former member of the RAF, but it very well could be. Although federal prosecutors have been investigating since 2007 whether Stefan Wsiniewski was involved in the attack on Buback, they have yet to come up with any solid evidence against him.
Former RAF members will continue to hold their tongues, and it's anybody's guess whether any of them will want to come clean before dying. However, it seems much more likely that the death of Federal Prosecutor Buback will remain a black hole of German history.
Of course, that would be disappointing for historians and others with an interest in the history of the RAF. But the person who will find it hardest to accept will be Michael Buback. After Becker, the terror victim's son is this trial's biggest loser. Justice continues to elude him.