Opinion in Germany is split over the news that former RAF terrorist Christian Klar will be freed from prison. Some view it as a triumph for the rule of law, while others say Klar should be kept permanently behind bars.
Klar, now 56, was arrested in 1982
The announcement by a Stuttgart court on Monday, Nov. 24, that Klar will be released from prison drew immediate protest from victims' groups and those personally affected by the crimes of the left-wing Red Army Fraction.
Juergen Vietor, the co-pilot of a Lufthansa airplane that was hijacked by the RAF in 1977, announced that he was giving back his Federal Cross of Merit -- the highest honor awarded by the German state.
Klar's release "mocks the victims of the RAF," Vietor wrote in a letter to German president Horst Koehler.
The RAF was a group of left-wing extremists who wanted to overthrow the West German state
"Why do criminals get more sympathy and attention in our state than victims," Vietor asked. "I don't want (to keep) a commendation from such a state and its institutions."
Klar was one of the leaders of the so-called second generation of the RAF. In 1982, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for complicity in various RAF crimes, including the murder of Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and Dresdner Bank CEO Juergen Ponto.
It was never established precisely what role Klar played in those killings. While in prison, he steadfastly refused to help authorities clear up the details about the RAF's activities in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Nor did he display regret about his past.
Legal but unjust?
It is perhaps Klar's lack of remorse that has most upset victims and their families, who have questioned the priorities of Germany's legal system.
"Our society takes extreme pride in re-socializing criminals while not thinking about victims at all," said Monika Schumann, the widow of a Lufthansa pilot killed in that 1977 hijacking, on a television talk show.
Representatives of Germany's police forces took a likewise dim view of Klar's release.
The RAF killed 34 people, including prominent bankers, industrialists and policemen
"As a police officer who was forced to be witness to the era of RAF terrorism and see how people were brutally killed and maimed, I feel deep bitterness," said the head of the German Police Union, Konrad Freiberg, in a statement.
Conservative politicians voiced similar sentiments.
"It is intolerable that a violent criminal who caused people such immeasurable pain and has never distanced himself from his grave crimes will soon be given freedom," Hamburg's Senator for the Interior, Christoph Ahlhaus, said.
Klar is set to leave prison on Jan. 3, 2009.
Parole, not pardon
But others stressed that the state had to release Klar since he had served the mandatory part of his sentence and was deemed to pose no threat to German society.
"Mr. Klar has spent 26 years in prison," Germany's Social Democratic Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "Now a court has reached a decision and commuted, under certain conditions, the rest of his sentence to parole."
The RAF coalesced in 1970 and only officially disbanded in 1998
"It's a completely normal judicial procedure," Zypries added.
Klar applied for a pardon in 2007, but that application was rejected. Convicts sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany become automatically eligible for parole -- whether they regret their actions or not.
"Remorse is not a precondition for an early release from prison," former Federal Interior Minister Gerhart Baum of the Free Democrats told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper.
A number of German newspapers have published editorials arguing that Klar's release essentially refutes one of the main tenets of the RAF -- that the Federal Republic of Germany was an unjust state.
It is unclear what Klar will do once freed, although he has been offered a spot as an apprentice by the Berlin Ensemble, a theater in a the German capital with a long left-wing tradition.