Yesterday on my local radio station there was a call-in show on the future of two convicted terrorists of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF). The RAF existed for almost thirty years, but its heyday was in the late 1970s, and especially in 1977, when the group staged a series of kidnappings an assassinations that caused a serious crisis atmosphere in Germany. This period was known as the "German Autumn."
Now two of the most infamous RAF prisoners, Brigitte Mohnhaupt (looking icily suave in the ‘man’-hunt photo at left) and Christian Klar, might soon be released (G) after serving twenty-four years behind bars. Mohnhaupt, one of the leaders of the German Autumn attacks, is serving a sentence of five terms of life imprisonment plus fifteen years. She’ll have a hearing before the Fifth Criminal Senate of the Stuttgart Regional Court on January 22 to determine whether she should be released early on parole. Klar, convicted of nine counts of murder and 11 counts of attempted murder, submitted his application for executive clemency years ago, when Johannes Rau was the President of Germany. Rau’s successor, Horst Koehler, has signaled he might be near a decision.
Back in the day, these two were ideologically disciplined, stone-cold ‘urban guerrillas’, capable of planning and carrying out sophisticated operations against heavily-guarded state and industry targets. Executing their targets, if necessary, was no problem to them, although not all of the murders charged to their account were execution-style.
Neither of them has publicly expressed any regret. In the early 1990s, Mohnhaupt (whose name, I feel compelled to report, can be translated as "Poppy-seed Head") rejected a government offer of possible clemency consideration, calling anyone who agreed to "cuddle up to the State" a "traitor." Klar, in a 2001 interview, said he didn’t understand (G) how concepts like "remorse" or "guilt" applied to him, given the thousands of victims capitalism was still claiming. Apparently, though, Klar has had some sort of change of heart since then, otherwise there would be little point in submitting a clemency request to the Federal President.*
I found it somewhat remarkable that all of the callers to the show (G) were in favor of early release for Klar and Mohnhaupt. Keep in mind that this is a public-radio talk show, so the callers are not representative of German society — they’re more educated and more left-wing. Still, I was surprised at the relative unanimity. Even Gerhart Rudolf Baum, the show’s guest was in favor of their release. Baum, a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), was a high-ranking official in 1977, and thus a potential target of the RAF. However, Baum is also a civil-liberties crusader, and supports strict limits on the state’s power to gather evidence and imprison people.
Only one caller to the show (an old lady from a small town) stated unequivocally that she wanted the terrorists kept behind bars. All other callers said as a sign of "humanity" or "moderation" that the former terrorists should be released, since they would not harm society in the future. Several of the callers specifically referred to the USA: "We should let them out. They have paid their dues to society, they’re not going to hurt anyone else, and unlike the USA, we shouldn’t be executing people or keeping people in prison just for revenge." The callers stuck to their guns even when they were confronted with the outspoken demand by the victim’s families that the RAF members be kept in prison, and with the fact that neither Klar or Mohnhaupt has publicly, clearly expressed regret for their actions.
The refrain among the callers was constant: It’s not about them, it’s about us. We, said the callers, want to live in a state which focusses on rehabilitating criminals, recognizes limits on retribution, and shows mercy and moderation toward prisoners, even if the prisoners may not appear particularly deserving. The callers also noted the extreme severity of twenty-four years in prison. After twenty-four years in a high-security prison, the prisoners’ lives have been ruined, their personalities have been fundamentally altered and perhaps gravely damaged, and they will never have a chance to resume a normal life. That, surely, is punishment enough.
Mohnhaupt’s chances are regarded as slim — she’s asking for early release from prison, which has to be earned. Klar’s chances may be better, since Koehler has broad latitude to grant clemency, and has made some slightly favorable noises about Klar’s application.
* Nota bene: Do not make the frequent European mistake of blaming George W. Bush for every execution that’s happened in the United States during his presidency. Unlike Germany’s president, the president of the United States has no power to pardon death row inmates, except for the tiny fraction of inmates imprisoned under federal law. The 152 executions that happened while Bush was Governor of Texas, however, can be charged to his account. But don’t worry — every one of them was guilty, as Bush could certify during the 30-minute sessions he conducted with his counsel Alberto Gonzales before the execution.