German authorities have moved to shut down a bizarre prank played by the far-right Reichsbürger to threaten German officials. The scam involves registering a "fine" in the US and then on the EU island of Malta.
The German government has struck a deal with Malta to end the so-called "Malta scam" that has been exploited by the far-right "Reichsbürger" movement to harass German judges and court workers.
According to a letter from the German Foreign Ministry to all 16 state justice ministries (and leaked to the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper and public broadcasters NDR and WDR), all attempts by Reichsbürger to abuse a loophole in the Maltese payment demand procedure are to be reported to the Foreign Ministry.
The ministry said it would then pass them on to the Maltese state prosecutor with a "reminder" that Malta has promised to prosecute all such cases of attempted fraud. The German government is believed to have increased pressure on Malta in recent months over the scam.
"It's good that Malta now wants to take more forceful action against the more than shameless activities of the Reichsbürger," Sven Rebehn, director of the German Association of Judges (DRB), told DW in an emailed statement. "The judiciary of a country can't allow German judges and judiciary employees to be bullied with imaginary demands from Malta."
He added that the judiciary's problems with Reichsbürger had increased significantly in recent weeks. "Not only do they make fictitious damage compensation demands, they flood the courts with abstruse documents, abuse judges on the internet, or drag out court procedures with absurd discussions about the legitimacy of the state."
The Reichsbürger are a loose network of people who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the current German state - the Federal Republic of Germany founded in 1949 - and therefore effectively consider themselves citizens ("Bürger") of the old German Reich. They believe that since Germany never signed a formal peace treaty with the Allies in 1945, the country is still effectively at war and under occupation. These constitutional conspiracy theories have often been debunked.
Since early 2014, members of the movement have discovered the Malta scam as a way of retaliating against fines and court summonses. The scheme involves "fining" a German civil servant, and registering the demand for payment at the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) in the US state of Washington, which can be done online and which US authorities do not check for legitimacy.
That fine is taken over by a Maltese collection agency that the Reichsbürger themselves appear to have set up - the Pegasus International Incasso Limited is an example often cited in media accounts - which then takes it to a court on the small island state and invokes the European Union's "order for payment procedure," which is valid in almost all EU countries.
The accused civil servants in Germany then receive an official warning from the Maltese court, and are theoretically obliged to appear there within 30 days to deny the legitimacy of the fine - which has often been between 25,000 euros ($27,000) and 500,000 euros ("The record holder once asked for $500 trillion," Reinhard Neubauer, legal adviser at the Potsdam-Mittelmark regional authority, told the SZ.)
The Foreign Ministry is not able to say exactly how many Germans have been targeted by the Malta scam, though the Justice Ministry has confirmed that both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck have received such "fines." The Reichsbürger have also been known to try other ways of harassing judges, including illegally filming court procedures, prompting demands for more political action from the DRB.
So far, the scam has done no real damage other than to harass civil servants. The German government said in July this year that Malta scams had no chance of legal success, not least because German courts do not automatically recognize payment demands that are sent from abroad. The government also said that an agreement had already been struck with US authorities to have the false payment claims deleted from the US system.
Reichsbürger have gained notoriety in recent months, and there is increasing evidence that members of the group have been hording weapons. In October, a police officer in Bavaria died after being injured in a shoot-out with a Reichsbürger who was due to appear in court on the same day. There also followed revelations that a handful of police officers were suspected of being members of the group themselves, which have resulted in some suspensions.
On Tuesday, a 75-year-old suspected Reichsbürger in Bavaria was found to be hording a small arsenal of firearms, including eight rifles, three handguns, and a large amount of ammunition. He is being investigated for illegal gun ownership.
In mid-November, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced that the movement would come under closer scrutiny by the domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz. But that poses some problems for security services, since, unlike other far-right groups, the movement has no recognized leadership structure; in fact, some Reichsbürger do not consider themselves neo-Nazis at all.