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Germany

Former German justice minister: 'Loss of trust in the state of law'

What needs to change after the Cologne attacks? Former Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger tells DW that a transparent investigation of events is necessary to re-establish trust in the state of law.

Deutsche Welle: What are your thoughts about the current refugee debate, in view of the events in Cologne and the attacker who was shot in Paris, who was also known to German officials?

Of course, we keep hearing news that makes it clear that terror attacks can happen in Europe at any time – in our immediate neighborhood, as well. I'm very concerned about many aspects of this, and my feelings are very ambivalent – about the total failure of state institutions on the one hand, but also, of course, consternation about the intensity with which these attacks were carried out, which could not have been predicted in advance.

What response would you consider appropriate? What mistakes were made?

The information coming from the police and those responsible within the force was altogether totally inadequate. This encourages those who are saying that the state is failing to deal with this. And it encourages those who are drawn to PEGIDA. I think that is very, very dangerous. So actually there is nothing that should not be reported on in such a way that it is completely transparent and comprehensible to the public.

In the debate that has followed the events in Cologne, we keep hearing about a "complete breakdown of law and order." What are your thoughts on this?

It is not correct to make sweeping generalizations in this way, but it's not the first time there have been insufficient police officers to deal with a crisis situation. I recall many occasions in the eastern German states where there's been massive pressure on other citizens from very aggressive, potentially violent people from the right-wing scene. Those citizens then feel completely abandoned, because the local police are hardly or almost never on the scene. These are deficiencies you simply cannot have in a state based on the rule of law and justice. Whether you talk about a breakdown of law and order in a certain situation, or just the police taking insufficient action, it ultimately leads to a loss of trust in the constitutional state. And that, unfortunately, is the very sad result, also with regard to the events of New Year's Eve.

Hauptbahnhof Köln Sylvester Ausschreitungen Menschenmassen

Many say police failed to take action on New Year's Eve

Some police officers are complaining that criminals are being punished too leniently. What's your view of this? Can it be said, in this context, that biased judgments are being made?

I don't see any biased judgments at the moment. I would not make one-sided accusations against the courts here. But I think it's good if the judiciary knows what a major role it plays and what a responsibility it has, and shows this by making use of every possibility for accelerated proceedings and prompt sentencing. Because that, after all, is the only thing that's effective. But the courts can't take action, process cases and sentence people if they don't have the perpetrators. And that takes us right back to the deficiencies, in that the police simply would not have been able to arrest many of the perpetrators on New Year's Eve, because there were too few officers at the scene.

At the meeting of its Federal Board in Mainz, Angela Merkel's CDU party called for more random stop-and-search checks. What do you think of this approach?

First, stop-and-search checks would not have had any effect at Cologne main station. We need to put these proposals where they belong. Such checks mean stopping and searching people even when there is no concrete reason to do so. They are being applied in Bavaria in the regions near the border and are intended for precisely that purpose. That is why I'm surprised that debates like this are taking place, also about more video surveillance. Video surveillance can be prescribed. We have regulations for this. We shouldn't always give citizens the impression that many things simply aren't possible here. It is possible! It just has to be decided; I don't need any change whatsoever in the law for that.

How should we deal with such a high level of immigration? What would be a wise immigration policy?

Germany has been waiting for months now for a wise immigration policy, because this is not forthcoming – not from this government, either, unfortunately. The government is arguing about whether or not we can take in 200,000 or an unstated number of refugees. We can't just measure refugees in numbers. Everybody knows we cannot turn people who are being politically persecuted away at the border. That is contrary to both international and national law. Angela Merkel must finally show us what her key policy is. I have no understanding for the total lack of progress.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is a politician with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and was German justice minister from 1992 to 1996 and from 2009 to 2014.

The interview was conducted by Kersten Knipp.