Germany: freedom to speak on racism under threat

February 23, 2010 — News

Written by Liz Fekete

In Germany, an anti-racist academic faces prosecution for questioning whether court negligence could have been a contributory factor in the case of Marwa al-Sherbini, who was stabbed to death in a Dresden courtroom in July 2009.

Some of Germany’s foremost academics, journalists, peace campaigners, trades unionists and politicians have formed the Action Group Against Racism and for Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom (Aktionsbündnis gegen Rassismus und für Meinungs-und Wissenschaftsfreiheit). The Alliance is concerned about the implications for academic freedom posed by the prosecution of Dr Sabine Schiffer, Director of the Institute for Media Responsibility in Erlangen. Dr Schiffer is accused of slandering a police officer; she has been summonsed to appear before Erlangen Municipal Court on 24 March and, if convicted, could face a 6,000 Euros fine or two months imprisonment.

Marwa al-Sherbini: the questions continue

Marwa al-Sherbini, a 31-year-old pharmacist from Egypt, was three months pregnant when she was murdered by Alexandre Wiens, a German citizen of Russian descent, who was known to be a xenophobe and neo-nazi sympathiser. Marwa al-Sherbini was appearing as a witness against Wiens in a case that arose from an incident in a local playground in which he racially abused her and called her an ‘Islamist whore’ on account of wearing the headscarf. She was giving her testimony in the Dresden Superior Court when Wiens lept up and stabbed her sixteen times, shouting ‘you have no right to live’. In the chaos that followed, Marwa al-Sherbini’s husband, Elwi Ali Oka was shot and seriously wounded by a police officer who mistook him for the assailant. The officer was initially suspended but an internal police inquiry cleared him of any wrongdoing. It is this police officer who has launched the action against Dr Schiffer whom he accuses of slander.

The background to the prosecution lies in attempts by German academics and some media voices to raise further question about the killing, and to ask, in particular, whether the criminal justice system bears some responsibility for the tragic death. As one of Germany’s foremost experts on issues of media racism, Dr Sabine Schiffer had also questioned whether media portrayals of Muslims could have influenced the police officer who shot and seriously wounded Elwi Ali Oka. It is for publicly airing her views that Dr Schiffer faces prosecution.

When, on 11 November 2009, Wiens was found guilty of murder and given the harshest possible sentence under German law (life sentence with no eligibility for early release), many in Germany believed that justice had been done, and that the investigation was closed. Yet major questions on the attitudes of the authorities remained. Could it be that institutional negligence played a role in Marwa al-Sherbini’s tragic death? Could it be that an independent inquiry would be the best way to establish the true facts about culpability? Was it acceptable that the police and the courts investigated themselves and cleared themselves of failing Marwa al-Sherbini and her family?

Questioning the system

Questions asked of the criminal justice system and the media include:

Was institutional neglect a contributory factor in the death of Marwa al-Sherbini? Dresden, the capital of Saxony, is symbolically an important city for German neo-nazis (the biggest neo-nazi rally in Europe is held here annually) and it is in the Länder of Saxony that the neo-nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (which Wiens sympathised with) has its highest support. (In June 2009 local and regional elections, it trebled its seats to a total of seventy-six). Yet despite this, and the fact that there has been a long history of racist violence in Dresden, no attempts were made to place the court case in an appropriate court room where Wiens would have been separated from the witness (he was standing less than two metres away from Marwa al-Sherbini, when he sprang up and attacked her). It also transpired that Wiens had carried the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, to court in his rucksack. He was not searched, despite the fact that he had made repeated threats against Marwa al-Sherbini at previous court hearings.

Why was no independent investigation launched into the shooting of al-Sherbini’s husband, Elwi Ali Okaz? The police officer was initially suspended pending investigation but reinstated in December 2009. The public prosecutor’s office in Dresden, announced that no charges would be brought, on the basis of an internal investigation. There is no independent police complaints authority in Germany, as in the UK.

Why did the media fail to report the murder as motivated by racism and Islamophobia? The murder of Marwa al-Sherbini barely drew any domestic media attention until it attracted widespread media coverage in Egypt and the Middle East. Indeed, it was initially reported as the result of a neighbourhood dispute, with headlines such as ‘Murder over quarrel over swing’. Germany has high levels of racist and neo-nazi violence, in which scores of people have died. (The IRR European Race Audit documented eight such murders in 2007-2008.) Saxony is an area of known-neo nazi activity. How was it, then, that reporting of racist violence could be such a low priority for the media?

It was the attempt to kick-start debate on the third of these questions – media frameworks that might perpetuate racism – that drew the authority’s attention to Dr Schiffer. Her previous work had focussed on media images of Muslims that promote ‘scare scenarios’. In a number of media interviews and newspaper articles, she expressed dismay at the way the murder was covered in the press and called for an expert opinion to be obtained as to whether Elwi Ali Okaz was shot because of his appearance, pointing out ‘it is an acceptable assumption that such images … could bring about a spontaneous mistake as to possible perpetrators and victims in a situation where there is not time for calm deliberation and objective examination of the facts’. Crucially, Schiffer, never accused the police officer who carried out the shooting of having a fundamentally racist attitude or of acting intentionally. Nor did she name him. As she explained in a press release of 7 August, ‘I merely wanted to note the consequences of media portrayals and admonish society as a whole.’ Journalists at the Berliner Zeitung, also concerned at the failings of the criminal justice system, point out that it would have made more sense for the police officer involved to file charges against the judges whose failures placed him in an impossible situation where he had to make a snap judgement as to whom to shoot.

Because of the summary penalty order, Dr Schiffer is now forbidden to make any further public statements about the investigation of the murder. This is one of the things that irks the Action Group, which see the case against Schiffer as an example of the use of legal instruments to initimidate and censor those who voice an opinion in the media and where issues of racism are concerned, close down on freedom of speech. The group believes that if the prosecution against Schiffer is allowed to stand, then all those who engage in academic research on issues of racism could be prevented from voicing an opinion. ‘It should not be illegal to put forward a thesis, to make suggestions in public, in order to improve our insights into how racism works.’

More criticisms of the criminal justice system

This is a valid point, as are the Action Group’s criticisms of the court and criminal justice system for failing to establish a wider responsibility that went beyond the actions of the actual murderer. Both these points need to be put in context. Germany has a long history of neo-nazi violence, with victims ranging from the homeless, left-wingers, asylum seekers, migrants, black people and other non-white German citizens. Case after case from the Lübeck fire (1996)[1], to the hounding to death of the Algerian asylum seeker, Farid Guendoul (2000)[2], to the death in disturbing circumstances of the British Jewish student Jeremiah Duggan (2003)[3], have revealed a pattern of neglect – what we in the UK might call institutionalised racism – by both the police and the public prosecution service. This pattern ranges from the bringing of inappropriate charges, (manslaughter is often substituted for murder), flawed prosecutions (public prosecutors have been known to refuse to allow evidence of racist background to be heard), lenient sentencing as well as failure to develop a victim’s perspective on extreme-right violence. (There has been criticism, for instance, of the lack of compensation for the victims of racism.) And it is not just academics who are suffering from the knee-jerk reaction of police officers to file suits for slander. Amnesty International has documented a pattern whereby those who allege police racism find themselves served with a counter-accusation of insulting and slandering police officers.

One can only hope that this misguided court case against Dr Sabine Schiffer will finally bring issues of institutionalised racism within the German criminal justice system to the fore.

Related links

Sign a petition in support of Dr Sabine Schiffer and the call for a full investigation into the death of Marwa al-Sherbini

[1] In 1996, ten asylum seekers, mostly African and including six children, died following arson at a refugee hostel in Lübeck. Despite the fact that neo-nazis were seen escaping the scene of the crime, no one was ever convicted, although twice an unsuccesful prosecution was brought against a Lebanese asylum seeker who lived at the hostel. [2] In February 1999, 28-year-old Farid Guendoul severed an artery and bled to death when he lept through a glass door in a bid to flee a gang of eleven neo-nazis who were chasing him through the streets of Guben, Spree-Neisse region [3] Jeremiah Duggan, a 22-year-old British Jewish student was found dead on a dual carriageway in Wiesbaden shortly after attending an anti-war conference which, unknown to him, was organised by an extreme Right anti-Semitic organisation. The family do not accept the findings of the police investigation into his death.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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