Saturday, 3 October 2009

More Willkür?

Burning cars are a regular occurrence in Berlin.

Ever since the G8 protests, cars all over the city keep being set aflame - in the first seven months of 2007, some 143 of them. Unsurprisingly, the police and the city government are under a lot of pressure to do something about this - the destruction of property is immense, and burning cars are dangerous. [1]

In the early morning of the 18th May, a Berlin police patrol noticed a person hiding between parked cars, and went to investigate. On exiting their car, they saw that a nearby car had been set on fire. They rushed to extinguish the flames and lost sight of the person. Given that that person was likely the arsonist, they went looking for him or her.

A few blocks away they saw a young woman, entering a 24-hour shop. She, Alexandra R, looked like the person they had glimpsed earlier, so they followed her in. When she saw the police, she started shouting at them to leave her alone. They took her in on suspicion of arson. Berlin police opened a case against her, but let her go home on Monday afternoon, having decided that she was not an urgent suspect.

The next day, the case was in the newspapers: they called her an arsonist, a car-hater, a "hate-burner". [2] Alexandra R is a leftist activist who organises demonstrations and has been known to throw stones at them. She is the kind of person, the newspapers said, who sets cars on fire.

The pressure from the newspapers and the opposition parties was powerful: the next day, Alexandra was arrested again and detained [3] on suspicion of arson. Two months later, on the 27th July, a judge ruled that she could be released on bail, but then the state prosecutor intervened, now stating that there was a risk of re-offence.

Alexandra has been under detention for more than four months now, and has lost her apprenticeship place as a result of this. At the time of this writing, the case has just gone to trial and so far, its outcome is uncertain, as there is an absence of hard evidence. [4]

Needless to say, I don't think setting cars on fire is a good and righteous thing to do.

What it boils down to, though, is that if you live in Berlin, and have the wrong politics and the wrong friends, you can end up being locked up for months for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because it's perfectly possible that she was not that person the police saw. Equally, it is possible that she set that car on fire. But it's not proven. And maybe Berlin police have locked up an innocent for months, for political reasons, because they want to be seen to be doing something.

If she is convicted of arson, her sentence will be one to ten years of prison. The difference being that this sentence will be meted out on someone the legal system has found guilty. The current detention - four months of being locked up so far - is being inflicted on someone who should be presumed innocent.

The state prosecutor claims that if released she would flee. Others point out that she made no move to do so when she was first released, despite fully knowing that she would end up in court. Equally, the likelihood of her setting cars on fire when she's already under bail on suspicion of arson is probably rather low.

Since this case has firmly entered the realms of politics and opinion, I would like to invite you to write to the state prosecutor. You don't have to agree with setting cars on fire - I don't. You don't have to agree with her politics - I don't, by and large. All you need is an unwillingness to let the state lock up someone because it's politically convenient.

So what I've done, and what I would like you to also do, is send an email or letter to the state prosecutor, stating the following things:
  • I make no claims as to Alexandra R's guilt or innocence - this isn't about whether she did it, it's about how she has been treated while a suspect.
  • I am disturbed by her being denied bail despite the unlikelihood of flight or reoffence.
  • I feel that she has been singled out for harsher treatment because of her political associations and because of media pressure.
  • She should presumed innocent until sentenced, and yet has been in prison for four months.
  • The state prosecution should apologise to her, and in case she is convicted, should lobby for the time already served in detention to be subtracted from the sentence.

Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin
Turmstrasse 91
10559 Berlin


Main Sources (all in German):
[1] According to the chief of Berlin's Landeskriminalamt.
[2] Die kranke Welt der Hassbrennerin, Berliner Kurier
[3] Put into Untersuchungshaft, which is not quite the same thing as detention in the UK or US.
[4] Ein Feuerschein, eine dunkle Figur, Der Tagesspiegel
[5] Linke Gruppe besetzt Wahlkreisbüro von Ströbele,

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