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Turning activists into criminals?
After nationwide raids against a group of (alleged) monarchist plotters last week, German police swooped on the climate movement known as Letzte Generation this Tuesday.
Police raided eleven properties in the early hours and made a fairly dramatic statement today. They are not just investigating a specific crime, they are looking into whether the group itself is criminal in nature.
This would dramatically increase the state’s powers to prosecute them. Ring leaders of the organisation could then face jail terms of between six months and five years.
Letzte Generation was formed sometime at the end of last year and its activists have generally made a nuisance of themselves by glueing themselves to streets or clambering onto overhead signs above motorways.
They have also damaged famous works of art and, more recently, broken onto the runways of Berlin and Munich airports, managing to halt air traffic for a while.
Paragraph 129 of the German criminal code sets out the requirements for an organisation to be considered criminal, one of which is that the crimes they commit need to come with a maximum sentence of at least two years. In other words, they need to be sufficiently serious.
Even repeatedly glueing yourself to the street could appear to qualify as a serious enough crime. That’s because the first activists have already been found guilty of the crime of coercion, which comes with a maximum sentence of three years’ prison.
That is beside the point for now though. What prosecutors are investigating is a series of sabotage attempts on an oil pipeline from Rostock on the Baltic coast to a refinery an hour or so northeast of Berlin.
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Prosecutors say that these incidents constitute acts of ‘disruption of public services’ - a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years - and thus easily meets the requisite seriousness of the crime.
There is no doubt that these crimes were committed - the group themselves very publicly boasted about shutting off valves on the pipeline back in May.
But that doesn’t mean that the prosecution’s case is straightforward. Paragraph 129 offers an exemption for organisations where the crime itself is “of subordinate importance.”
Legal experts have predicted that the group’s defence team will pick up on this wording. The crimes, they are likely to argue, are ultimately of secondary importance: they are a means to the end of pushing the government into more urgent action on climate change.
What has the reaction been?
Don’t get me wrong, the Letzte Generation activists are deeply irritating, writes Jan Heidtmann in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
They are irritating because their blockades mess up our travel plans and because they stylise themselves as victims even though they are financed by American climate funds. “But none of this makes them criminals. The crimes they have committed so far are non-violent… The raids seem like a dubious attempt to turn climate activists into criminals.”
The authorities were right to intervene when they did, counters Jacques Schuster in Die Welt. “If you take our freedoms seriously, you have to take early action against anything anti-democratic.”
And make no mistake, these activists are anti-democratic, Schuster continues. Like the ideologues of the 20th century, they argue that the ends justify the means. “But the idea that they could increase their influence in a democratic way is alien to them.”
One thing is for sure - these raids won’t end the street blockades. Similar heavy-handed responses haven’t yet deterred the group.
In Bavaria, dozens of activists have been held in preventative detention - a dubious legal mechanism that was intended for use against potential terrorists. But the street blockades there have increased in number.
Meanwhile Munich has banned street blockades (which are already not permitted) a move the activists understandably described as “absurd.”
But the protests kept coming this week. If anything the activists feel validated in their anger by the attention they are getting from authorities.
It is an interesting thought experiment to ask how we would see these stunts if they were carried out by groups with more sinister motives.
If we were to find lines of neo-Nazis blocking our morning commute we would probably be more than a little disturbed. Our instinct would be to want them removed as quickly as possible - and permanently.
The law has to be consistent, for pragmatic reasons as well as out of principle: the far-right could use copycat tactics to try and expose “double standards” on the part of state authorities.
At the same time, the idea that the state could have the power to lock up the leaders of a protest movement that has so far shown no inclination to violence seems grotesque.
You don’t have to agree with with their shrill view on the dangers of climate change, or their methods, to think that classifying Letzte Generation as a criminal gang is going too far.
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