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A Democratic World Is Possible

by Martin Wachtelborn

"Another world is possible" is the motto of those who are protesting against this year's Group of Eight summit, which began Wednesday at the German resort town of Heiligendamm. For globalization critics, such as the Attac network, human rights organizations and environmental groups, the motto was to suggest an alternative to the domination of the Western world by the world's industrialized nations, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. But for those in Germany who want to express their ideas and ideals, the slogan has a double meaning. In advance of the meeting, they were confronted with a restriction of their civil liberties, which seemed rather impossible only a few months ago -- another world for a democracy like Germany, if you will.

The most obvious sign of this affront to civil liberties is a newly erected, 7 1/2-mile fence of steel and concrete that now surrounds the resort hotel. Protesters are barred from going behind the fence, a violation of the German right to assemble and demonstrate. On Tuesday, the German High Court said there must be 3 1/2 miles between the fence and the protest rallies, a position diametrically opposed to the protesters' views that they should be allowed access. The protesters now hope the court will support their view that they should be allowed in closest possible proximity to the summit. We could have stayed at home otherwise, they argue.

But even there, the protesters weren't beyond the reach of the German authorities. Almost 40 offices and apartments of members of the so-called alternative political left were searched by federal police in the weeks before the Heiligendamm summit in Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg. The raids frightened other potential supporters of the G-8 protests. The actions also showed how small the difference is between coordinated reasonable crime prevention and sanctions against an assumed threat only loosely covered by existing laws. Or covered by a law that loosely specifies its own legal boundaries.

The authorities base the actions taken against the G-8 protesters on Article 129a of the German criminal and penal code. The rule had its origin in the late '70s, when the left-wing terrorists, Red Army Faction, robbed banks and waged urban warfare in what it called an "anti-imperialistic fight." The rule allows, among other things, the control of communication channels, the raid and confiscation of non-suspects and their imprisonment. The 9/11 attacks in the United States and Germany's participation in the war on terrorism resulted in a tightening of the article's content in 2003.

The way the authorities used Article 129a in the past few weeks, however, has led to outrage and a political debate. The most controversial action by the authorities was the collection of scent samples from supposed G-8 critics during the Hamburg raids. This tactic has been used before in Germany -- by the Staatssicherheit or Stasi, the repressive secret police in the former communist East Germany. In the former district headquarters of the Stasi, now a museum, in Leipzig, the town I live in, you can still see preserved cloths with the collected scents of dissidents.

Wolfgang Thierse, vice president of the German federal parliament and a former dissident himself, said he felt he had gone back in history.

Germany's government has the right to secure the safety of its guests at the G-8. Several minor attacks in the weeks before the summit and the riots on the past weekend are proof of possible dangers. But taking such actions without any substantial political objective as a reason to criminalize the whole spectrum of the criticism accompanying the summit of Heiligendamm doesn't fit Germany's claim of being an exemplary and strong democracy. And it damages the liberties of those whose right it is to protest. That was another world -- one of the past.

Martin Wachtelborn is a political reporter for the Leipziger Volkszeitung in Leipzig, Germany.

© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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