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‘Guantanamo Bayern’: Why Bavaria’s tough new police law is so controversial

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‘Guantanamo Bayern’: Why Bavaria’s tough new police law is so controversial
Photo: Christine Madden
16:06 CEST+02:00
On Tuesday, Bavarian politicians are voting on a police law described as the most intrusive in Germany since the Nazi era. The Local took to the streets of Munich to find out why the proposed powers are causing such a fuss.

Storms were forecast, but the sun still shone on Munich’s Marienplatz last Thursday. At 12.30 pm, the square filled up – nothing particularly unusual for a holiday (Ascension Day), when tourists routinely assemble to watch the Glockenspiel in the tower.

But more and more people crowded into the square, bearing signs, posters, banners, and even clothing emblazoned with slogans. When the #noPAG demonstration – a protest organized against the new Polizeiaufgabengesetz, or Policing Regulations Act – was about to start, 15,000 people had already crushed in.

SEE ALSO: 'Attack on democracy' - 30,000 demonstrators in Munich protest police bill

“Wow! There’s a LOT of you!” announced one of the organizers over the Tannoy. The announcement was met with a roar of delight. There were too many people to make opening remarks, the voice gleefully continued. They would keep their speeches until after the march.

“Like old times,” says Munich resident Helga Kamy. For her, a member of the 1968 generation, it was traditional to take to the streets in protest. “Of course” she was joining the demonstration, although she had to convince her husband to go with her.

“We’ve demonstrated enough,” he argued. “Now the young people should go.” But she explained that, when they had gone on protests, the old people had berated them. So they had a duty to support them, because they didn’t get the support back in the day.

Photo: Christine Madden

“We were astonished at how many young people there were,” she says. “We were thrilled!”

By the time the march set out, it was jostling-room only. But notably, there was no aggression. The atmosphere exuded the famous Bavarian Gemütlichkeit – relaxed, chilled – but with purpose.

If you didn’t know it was a protest against more invasive policing tactics, you might think you were at a rock concert. People weaved and nudged their way through the dense crowd, posed for selfies, danced to music they brought with them. Nevertheless, their anger and opposition unified them.

“I’ve no interest in this law,” says protester Fritz Bommas, a student from Augsburg who travelled to Munich for the demonstration. “We don’t want more security measures. We’re here to show ourselves, draw attention. We want it to go before the Constitutional Court.”

'Threat of danger'

The unexpectedly enormous surge of nay-sayers indicates the fear and anger regarding a law that will give the Bavarian police force unprecedented power to conduct surveillance and detain individuals – some say, to levels not experienced in former West Germany since the Nazi regime.

The legislation under discussion is not actually a new law but the amendment of an old one. Every state in the Federal Republic of Germany has its own police force and its own policing regulations. In Bavaria this is called the Polizeiaufgabengesetz (PAG). It was initially enacted in 1955 and is regularly amended as required.

The new PAG is designed to enhance data protection. But other unrelated measures are also included in the law. For example, granting the Bavarian police increased powers of investigation has ramifications beyond the area of terrorism prevention, the main stated reason for the changes. 

One of the biggest issues with the new PAG is the concept of “drohende Gefahr” – imminent threat of danger. The proposed change will give the Bavarian police the power to take action when a threat of danger is perceived, not only when a real and present danger is identified (konkrete Gefahr).

This would mean the police could take preventative measures based on assumptions derived from collected evidence. Methods of collection include phone tapping, secret investigations and online surveillance.

Bavarian state leader Marcus Söder. Photo: DPA

DNA samples and opened packages

Under the terms of the new PAG, the police would be able to use DNA samples to build a profile of the suspect, including hair and eye colour and – controversially – ethnic origin. They would also be able to seize letters and parcels, and assess them. This measure is designed to prevent the delivery of drugs and weapons obtained on the darknet. The suitability of all these measures would have to be determined by a judge before implementation.

Another controversial feature of the PAG is the ability, theoretically, to detain someone indefinitely without trial. Before the previous incarnation of PAG in 2017, a suspect could be put in preventative detention for only 14 days. Under the new law, suspects can be jailed for up to three months, after which a judge can determine whether to extend the detention period for another three-month period.

Critics of the PAG declare that these elements infringe on individual and personal rights and are unconstitutional. The concept of “drohende Gefahr”, for example, is too vague, they argue. They point out that the German constitutional court used the concept of “drohende Gefahr” in the context of terrorism prevention – but the PAG extends it more broadly into other areas of criminality, such as stalking.

The spectre of cyber-surveillance, bodycams, electronic tagging, face recognition CCTV and extended dragnet Internet searching has also alarmed people – many of whom swelled the ranks of the demonstrations in Bavaria, particularly the one in Munich.

Students, the elderly, people in wheelchairs, groups of all orientations showed up. Alongside the political parties – SPD, Greens, die Linke, FDP, Piraten – such unlikely bedfellows as religious organizations, environmentalists and football clubs came to show their opposition. And yet the atmosphere was peaceful.

“It was really surprising,” says Kamy. “We used to be pretty keyed up and aggressive at the demos. But these young people - it was more like a happening.” She laughs. “They were happy and relaxed. But they also had a message.”

An architect and a doctor based in Munich, when asked if they could be named, react with both anxiety and annoyance. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated,” says the architect. “Germany has a federal security police force. Why does the Bavarian police need extra powers?”

But the police – who are naturally directly affected by the new law – were restrained. Kamy thought the demonstrators would be kettled. “I never think of the police as sensitive.” But they kept their distance, letting the demonstrators get on with their peaceful protest. “I was expecting anything but that.”

Photo: Christine Madden

'Free State not Police State'

By the time the first people reached the finishing point at Odeonsplatz, they numbered more than 30,000 – some sources putting the crowd at 40,000. And the demonstrators at the tail of the march had not yet left Marienplatz. Between that start and finish locations, the streets were paved with protesters.

The throng was colourful with imaginative, hand-held signs and banners: “Freistaat statt Polizeistatt” (free state not police state, a reference to Freistaat Bayern), “Next stop: Guantanamo Bayern”, “Welcome back to 1933”, “Big Söder is watching you”.

Markus Söder, the Bavarian Minister-President, tried to strike a conciliatory tone afterwards.

“The whole aim is to avoid victims of crime,” he stated. “We’re taking the concerns seriously.”

Insisting that the law will go through as written, he nevertheless announced plans to create a committee composed of data protection and constitutional law experts and former police practitioners, possibly also citizen representatives, to observe and report on the way the law is practised in the next three to four months.  

His words were at odds, though, with those of the Bavarian minister of the interior, Joachim Herrmann, who criticized the demonstration the day after the demo, stating that the protesters were “ingenuous” and had been misled by “Lügenpropaganda”.

This drew an immediate, furious response from all sides. “Our Herrmann,” Kamy says with a laugh. “Herr Hermann, I am so ingenuous I won’t be voting for you.”

Nobody, however, believes that the PAG won’t be passed into law. The CSU are the reigning party in the Bavarian parliament. “It would be a miracle,” admits Kamy.

All the protesters can feasibly hope for is that a legal objection to the law – which several political and legal groups are planning to put forward – will be upheld by the Federal Constitutional Court.

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