Europol: Protest, an increasingly suspect activity
26 January 2011
EU countries have been swapping information with their allies in the "war on terror". Often it's just information on “troublemakers”, i.e. political protesters. And whether they have actually ever committed an offence makes no difference.
On 4 October 2010 a U.S. drone along the Pakistani-Afghan border fired a missile. At least three people, all young men, died in the attack. But that wasn’t news. One of those killed was a German citizen. That was. Bünyamin E., 20 years of age, was alleged to have trained at a terrorist camp and was under investigation by the public prosecutor’s office in Dusseldorf. And yet, following his death, no one is investigating those who killed him, not the U.S. soldiers at the controls of the remotely piloted drones or their superiors.
German authorities find it hard to prosecute their allies in the war on terror if they kill or abduct German citizens, as happened in the case of the Hamburg-based Islamist Mohammed Zammar in autumn 2001. They suffer few twinges of conscience when they forward personal information to security agencies of other states – even when the persons under suspicion have never been convicted of any offence. The fate of E. Bünyamin shows what can happen in extreme cases when information on alleged terrorists is evaluated by foreign agencies: the U.S. army declared the 20-year-old a terrorist and more or less executed him without a trial.
Protestors must expect the attention of external police agencies
Foreign security agencies will, in future, and without any guilty verdict established by an independent court, take action against citizens of other countries much more frequently than they do today. The Council of the European Union is now pressing ahead with a data exchange programme the scale of which puts the existing security cooperation among Member States in the shade.
Following the founding of the European Police Office (Europol) on 1 January last year, a comprehensive analysis centre was created in the Hague. There, personal data from the individual EU states are evaluated and forwarded to members of Europol and to third countries. It is expressly provided for that Europol will hold data not just on convicted persons, but also on persons that any agency suspects may commit an offence.
Not a bad idea, you might say, in the era of global organised crime. But what is striking is that the national security authorities in recent years have been exchanging information on political activists in particular. Stories that recently came to light of informers infiltrating the protest scene in the UK and Germany have opened only a small peephole onto the activities of informers and the swapping of information among the EU states.
Europeans who engage in civil disobedience in political issues clearly must expect to attract the attention of external police agencies, especially when they travel to demonstrations in other EU countries. Those who scoop gravel out from under rail tracks to protest against nuclear policy, who break into animal fattening pens because they object to battery culture or who block highways to protest against tuition fees could find themselves in the “IgaSt” file of Germany’s BKA, i.e. the file that the Federal Criminal Police Office keeps on “Internationally active troublemakers prepared for violence". Everything that can be found out about a potential demonstrator is collected; of particular interest are methods of communication and memberships in different groups. These are some of the recommendations set out in a EU Council guideline.
Those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear?
The long-running dispute within the government coalition in Berlin over data retention cannot be understood without reference to the Europol strategy. That strategy should make it possible in future, for example, to "protect" a major NATO event against demonstrators with considerably less effort and cost. How the demonstrators are to arrive at the demonstration, who the leaders are and who the participants stay in touch with can be gleaned just from their electronic messaging. The Wiesbaden-based BKA has repeatedly passed data on demonstrators to other states. Their data on the presumed Islamist Bünyamin E. was also apparently disclosed to the U.S. authorities. In the first case, demonstrators may be turned back at the border. In the second case, a human being is killed.
The mantra of the police authorities is always the same: “Those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear." But against such a backdrop, this sounds downright absurd. The fundamental right to presumption of innocence is undermined when a profile of the communications and movements of each person is stored as a precaution, and when, solely on the basis of these data evaluated by police agencies, that person is punished. As sensible as it is to have cooperation among police agencies of different states, those agencies must not be permitted to criminalise political movements or to issue sanctions in the absence of rulings by independent judiciaries.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer