Germans wrestle with rights and wrongs of torture
Revelation that police signed order to extract confession fuels furious
John Hooper in Berlin
Thursday February 27, 2003
One of Germany's leading conservative politicians yesterday stepped into
a raging controversy about the police use of torture that has opened a
rift in the government and led Germans to re-examine assumptions
previously regarded as unshakeable.
The row erupted over the conduct of the police in a crime that had
nothing to do with politics or religion. It has since widened into a
debate about whether the authorities should renounce the use of
maltreatment in a world facing the threat of terrorist atrocities on an
Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of Brandenburg - the state around
Berlin - was reported yesterday to have called for people to think about
what means they would want the forces of law and order to use "if vast
numbers of people were under threat from terrorism".
At the root of the controversy is the question of whether torture - or
the threat of torture - is inadmissible in every case and without
One morning last October, for example, Wolfgang Daschner, the deputy
commissioner of the Frankfurt police, found himself wrestling with an
His officers had arrested a man whom they were convinced was responsible
for the kidnapping of an 11-year-old boy, Jakob von Metzler, the son of a
rich Frankfurt banker.
For seven hours the day before, interrogators had tried every trick in
the book to get Magnus Gäfgen to tell them where he was keeping the boy.
Unknown to the police, Jakob had already been murdered. But, as Gäfgen
sent the police off to search one false location after another, the fear
grew that the boy's life might be slipping away in some underground
Mr Daschner decided that the time had come for a radical, but illegal,
step. He drew up and signed a written order, which only came to light
last week, instructing his subordinates to try to extract the necessary
information "by means of the infliction of pain, under medical
supervision and subject to prior warning".
The warning alone proved enough. By 8.25am, a terrified Gäfgen had
indicated the boy's whereabouts, and confessed to the crime.
Through his lawyer, he has since testified that a police officer told him
that a specialist was being flown by helicopter to Frankfurt who could
"inflict on me pain of sort I had never before experienced". He was said
to have added that, back in Gäfgen's cell, there were two big men waiting
to rape him.
Mr Daschner disputes this account, but admitted this week to the magazine
Der Spiegel that his officers "made it very plain to him that they had to
hurt him until he identified the whereabouts of the child".
His orders were not carried out without resistance. Documents released to
the press show that one of his officers protested, and a meeting was held
at police headquarters at which his objections "on moral grounds" were
discussed, but eventually rejected.
Torture - and the threat of torture - are punishable in Germany by up 10
years in jail.
No action has so far been taken against Mr Daschner; and, after an
initially scandalised reaction to his orders, several leading public
figures have openly asked whether, in extreme cases, things should be
quite so cut and dried.
Roland Koch, the Christian Democrat governor of Hessen - of which
Frankfurt is a part - told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that the deputy
commissioner's decision was "personally understandable".
The head of the German judges' federation, Geert Mackenroth, had earlier
gone further. "There are situations that cannot really be resolved by
legal means, and in which legally protected rights have to be weighed,
the one against the other," he said.
His remarks unleashed a storm of controversy within the judiciary,
prompting Mr Mackenroth to say that he was not questioning the ban on
The row has also divided the Social Democrats, the senior partners in the
governing coalition. The interior minister, Otto Schily, has warned that
any tolerance of maltreatment could put Germany on the slide towards
reintroducing the death penalty. But his colleague at the justice
ministry, Brigitte Zypries, has argued that the law provides for rules to
be bent in cases of extreme emergency.
For Amnesty International, that ban remains "absolute" and the same holds
good for the Greens, the junior partner in the government. "Just leave
the window open a crack," said one Green MP, "and the chill wind of the
Middle Ages will soon fill the entire room."