January 17, 1998 in Nation/World

Germany Takes Vote To Allow Wiretaps Move To Fight Crime Concerns Many With Memories Of Nazis

Alan Cowell New York Times
 

Dismantling a cardinal principle of postwar Germany’s protection of individual privacy, the Bonn Parliament took a decisive step Friday toward allowing police to bug private homes for the first time since the Nazi era.

Previously, authorities were able to tap telephones in exceptional circumstances relating to crime and terrorism and to use listening devices to monitor emergencies such as hostage-taking, Justice Ministry officials said. But the constitution guaranteed the inviolability of private homes from all forms of eavesdropping, including long-range or concealed electronic devices.

In Friday’s vote, the lower house of Parliament, or Bundestag, voted narrowly to secure the two-thirds majority necessary for changing the constitution, ostensibly to give police greater powers to combat organized crime and money laundering.

The lower house generates legislation, which the upper house can delay and sometimes veto. It is not expected to do so in this case because details of the constitutional amendment were worked out in a compromise between the dominant Christian Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats.

The move drew an outcry from civil rights campaigners and from journalists, doctors and lawyers fearful that conversations with news sources, patients or clients could now be overheard. Only priests, defense lawyers meeting accused criminals and legislators will be protected by law from eavesdropping.

Wiretapping is legal in many countries, including the United States, where federal and state authorities must get court approval, which is almost never denied. The vast majority of the cases in the United States involve narcotics investigations.

Germany has shied away from adopting similar measures for many years because of its concerns not only about its Nazi past but also because the former East Germany was notorious for such practices.

The German journalists’ association said it was considering an appeal to the highest constitutional court against the new law, which still has to be approved by the upper house of Parliament, made up of representatives of Germany’s 16 federal states.

“This is about nothing less than the constitution and the elementary right of every individual to a tiny core of privacy,” said a commentary Friday in the liberal newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. To secure evidence, the newspaper said, police and prosecutors would be permitted to eavesdrop on “private homes, hotel rooms, company offices, lawyers’ rooms, medical practices, labor rooms, drug advice centers and editorial offices.”

“Even if the new law leads to the downfall of this drug dealer or that extortionist, this attack on the constitution is not justified,” the newspaper said.

And Karsten Vilmar, head of the leading physicians professional association, declared: “Medical practices and hospitals are places where people find protection. An intrusion intween Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats and other political groups traditionally more protective of civil rights. Manfred Such, a member of the Free Democrats, the junior coalition partner, said Friday’s vote spelled a Black Friday for Germany’s constitutional processes.

But Interior Minister Manfred Kanther, a Christian Democrat, said the new measures would “be used only rarely to fight crime.”

In recent years, Germany has been increasingly worried by the influence of organized crime groups, starting with the Italian Mafia and Turkish and Kurdish narcotics networks, then spreading after the Cold War to criminal syndicates from Eastern Europe and Russia.

In a statement seeking to justify the bill, Jorg van Essen, a leading Free Democrat, said the new measures would be used only when there were strong suspicions of criminal activity and when there was no other way of gathering evidence.

He said eavesdropping would have to be approved by a panel of three judges and that judges would also rule on the admissibility in court hearings of testimony garnered by such methods. Church confessionals are also to be exempted, Justice Ministry officials said.


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