German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has whipped up controversy by saying that terror suspects should not be presumed innocent until proven guilty, a statement that has outraged civil rights groups and opposition politicians and also sparked a row within Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition.
Schäuble, a senior member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, defended his plans for tighter security laws in Germany after the country narrowly escaped an attack last July when two self-made bombs deposited on trains by Islamic militants failed to detonate.
"Would it be right to say that I would prefer to allow ten attacks to take place rather than try to prevent one person who maybe doesn't want to commit an attack. In my opinion that would be wrong," Schäuble told Stern magazine in an interview published in its Thursday edition.
Gerhart Baum, a former interior minister and member of the opposition liberal Free Democrat Party, said the suggestion was "legally outrageous."
"This is about changing the fundamental coordinates of our legal system," Baum told Berliner Zeitung daily.
Members on the left of Merkel's left-right coalition were also critical. "A minister who spreads hysteria himself becomes a security risk," Klaus Uwe Benneter, a security policy expert of the Social Democrats, told Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.
Germany passed more rigorous anti-terrorism laws after it emerged that several of the September 11 suicide hijackers had lived in the northern port city of Hamburg. Since then security authorities were given easier access to suspects' banking data, flight details and other information, and a central "anti-terror database" was set up in March grouping information on individuals and organizations deemed suspicious.
The controversy surrounding Schäuble's comments coincided on Wednesday with the government's announcement of plans to make telecoms firms keep all telephone call logs for six months to aid police work.
German newspaper commentators said Schäuble was treading on dangerous ground by calling the "innocent until proven guilty" assumption into question, although some noted that Schäuble was really only referring to the law as it currently applies: the innocence assumption applies in trials but not when it comes to fending off potential threats. For example, hooligans are allowed to be detained ahead of a football match even if they haven't done anything wrong yet.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The innocence assumption, says Munich criminal justice professor Klaus Volk, defines 'the measure of state interference that is acceptable'. If Schäuble removes that he is making a fatal step towards a system which arbitrarily decides who is a citizen and who an enemy, and removes the 'enemies' from the reach of justice."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"It's Schäuble's own fault that his remarks have been immediately met with protest and mistrust, perhaps he even factored in the public uproar. Schäuble will have to explain what he meant. People who want to get angry already have ample reason to: The cabinet yesterday decided to order firms to store data from fixed-line and mobile telephone calls for half a year. This interference in civil liberties is real and has a new dimension. Companies have been turned into deputy sheriffs and citizens' rights to a private sphere are being massively curtailed."
Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"He's pursuing the method that the US has been using for a long term and which has culminated in the Guantanamo prison camp: In the fight against terrorism the assumption of innocence until proven guilty is to be cancelled."
"He's saying that the state must, when its existence is threatened, be in a position to protect its citizens. It must do everything humanly possible to do so. Schäuble is thereby smashing the borders that have existed so far. The conclusions the minister draws from this go way beyond the model of a strong state."
"Every single instrument the CDU politician wants to make available to security authorities in the war on terror may in itself make sense. But taken together they result not just in a surveillance state which can put together all information about its citizens and create a picture about their assumed or real potential to be dangerous."
"In such an anti-terror war the values of the constitution lose their meaning because they run counter to the goal of security. The assumption 'innocent until proven guilty' and the constitution itself become obstacles impeding the defense against possible attacks. The freedom of the individual is sacrificed to protect the state. Until now the innocence assumption has protected the individual from state coercion. If this assumption is suspended or diluted, the citizen loses the certainty that he is shielded from a state which is not infallible. Therein lies the danger of Schäuble's state model."
Business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"If things go Schäuble's way, storing phone data is just the beginning. His agenda goes well beyond that."
"A survey by the Federal Criminal Police Office found that in 2005 there were only 381 crimes where stored data may have helped the investigation. 381 out of 6 million crimes committed. This tiny number is supposed to justify the surveillance of all citizens and the tremendous costs arising to companies.
"The economic consequences are only one side. The other is a massive shift of the balance between protecting citizens and state control. It's especially irritating that Schäuble in this context made confusing remarks about the innocence until proven guilty assumption.
"The debate has become 'a little confusing', said Federal Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries. That's the least one could say. Schäuble needs to clarify his thoughts as soon as possible and scale them back to an acceptable measure."
-- David Crossland, 2:30 CET