03/10/2003

Germans Debate Police Torture Threat Tactics

By Peter Finn, The Washington Post

BERLIN - In September, Jakob von Metzler, 11, son of a prominent banker, was kidnapped in Frankfurt while on his way home from school.

Three days later, police watched a man collect a ransom equivalent to about $1 million that had been placed at a drop-off point. They moved in and arrested him.

But a serious problem developed: The suspect, law student Magnus Gaefgen, 27, wouldn't reveal where the boy was.

For hours, he toyed with police, sending them down one false trail after another. He named one location after another and said the boy was alive. None of his statements were true, police officials said.

Wolfgang Daschner, deputy police chief in Frankfurt, has recounted that he feared the boy was dying in some makeshift cell known only to the suspect.

So Daschner told his officers they could torture the suspect, and he put that order in writing. They could extract information "by means of the infliction of pain, under medical supervision and subject to prior warning."

National debate

Daschner's decision last year has just become public, and it has plunged Germany into a national debate: Is there ever a circumstance under which torture is permissible?

Daschner has said that in this instance, just the mention of torture had the desired effect.

"After Magnus (Gaefgen) was threatened with pain, it only took about 10 minutes for him to tell us where the child was," he told Der Spiegel magazine. But when police went there, they found the boy was dead.

Gaefgen has been charged with murder, and Daschner is under investigation for using the threat of torture, a crime that carries a 10-year sentence in Germany.

Political support divided

In Germany, the word torture conjures images of the Gestapo, but the police officer has been defended by some politicians who have invoked the threat of massive terrorist attacks and other extraordinary circumstances to suggest that torture should be part of the police arsenal if there is no other alternative for saving lives.

Joerg Schoenbohm, the interior minister of the state of Brandenburg, said people need to consider what the police should do if they know "vast numbers of people" are "under threat from terrorism."

And Geert Mackenroth, head of the Federation of German Judges, said, "There are situations that cannot really be resolved by legal means and in which legally protected rights have to be weighed." After protests from other members of the judiciary, Mackenroth withdrew his remarks.

Some politicians condemned the officer's action. "If you open the window, even just a crack, the cold air of the Middle Ages will fill the whole room," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a member of Parliament for the Greens Party, who once defended suspected left-wing terrorists in Germany.

And Amnesty International said, "Torture is banned in international conventions and in the German constitution, and that is absolute."

Public supports tactic

Human-rights activists noted, however, that the idea of torture, once reviled, has found a measure of respectability in popular discourse in Germany and elsewhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

A majority of German public opinion supports Daschner's choice, according to polls in recent days.

The deputy chief enjoys the highest level of approval among supporters of the successor party to the old East German Communist Party, according to a poll published in the newspaper Die Welt.

Gaefgen recalls torture threat

Gaefgen has testified that the police told him a torture specialist was being flown in who "could inflict on me the sort of pain I had never before experienced."

Gaefgen also said the police threatened to take him to a cell where two male prisoners would rape him.

The police deny the rape accusation but admit they told Gaefgen that they "had to hurt him until he identified the whereabouts of the child," German news media have reported.

After Daschner drew up his written order to hurt Gaefgen, one police officer objected, according to German news reports. A meeting was held, but the dissenter was overruled.

Daschner has said a martial-arts trainer was put on call and cleared to hurt the prisoner but without causing him any lasting injury.

"I thought, I can sit with my hands in my lap and wait until Gaefgen maybe, at some point, decides to tell the truth, and in the meantime the child is long dead," Daschner told the Frankfurter Neue Presse newspaper.

"Or I do everything I can now to prevent just that."

The law student broke minutes after the threat was made and led police to a lake outside Frankfurt. The child's body was found wrapped in plastic and stuffed under a dock. Gaefgen is scheduled to go on trial next month, but the revelation of torture threats has caused legal experts to question the viability of the case against him.

Back to previous page