A state prosecutor has been given a "slap in the face" by a Munich judge in an infamous illegal arms deal case. She dismissed his charges against journalists who released the documents they had given him to investigate.
Press freedom has won a significant victory in an epic legal tussle over one of Germany's most notorious illegal weapons sales. A Munich court last week dismissed charges against a film director and an activist who published documents relating to an illegal arms deal with Mexico.
The anti-arms exports activist Jürgen Grässlin and the film-maker Daniel Harrich welcomed the decision, which their lawyer Holger Rothbauer described as a "slap in the face" for the Stuttgart state prosecutor who brought the charges.
Rothbauer was emphatic about how important the decision is - not because of the arms deal at the center of it, but because of the threat to press freedom that the charges represented. "It's basically a small case - who cares about weapons exports to Mexico? People have other worries," he told DW. "But this case is about Article 5 [of the German constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech]. It's about a fundamental right. It's about showing Erdogan, Putin and Trump that the values that the US and the French once brought to us, that we still operate according to those. It's about showing that we can't ban journalists from publishing the things they find out."
The documents - which showed German government officials may have colluded with H&K to circumvent weapons export controls - were published in the book "Netzwerk des Todes" ("Network of Death") and shown in a documentary aired on public broadcaster ARD in September 2015. The investigation won Harrich Germany's Grimme journalism prize.
The filmmaker thinks its an outrage that the Stuttgart prosecutor even brought the charges in the first place, invoking an obscure law in the German Criminal Code that prohibits the release of material pertaining to an ongoing investigation. In this case, the documents in question were submitted to the prosecutor by Grässlin himself several years ago.
"We were all shocked because for us it was clear that this was nothing else but trying to punish us for our investigative work," Harrich told DW. As he points out, it is usually a "no-brainer" for a court to pass a state prosecutor's charge onto a court trial - and the decision to dismiss the charges outright came as a surprise to the activists. The prosecutor has since confirmed to Rothbauer that he would not be appealing the decision - "He doesn't want another slap in the face from the state court," Rothbauer said. In an email to DW, the Munich court confirmed the decision, but did not offer any details of the reasoning beyond saying that the "presented evidence did not justify sufficient suspicion against the accused."
"We're happy that this ruling proves that the judicial system in our country actually works," continued Harrich. Not only that, he also pointed out that allowing the prosecutor's charge would have set all kinds of hugely problematic precedents, since newspapers routinely publish documents that form part of investigations into court cases.
Much like the archaic German law against offending foreign heads of state that was invoked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against comedian Jan Böhmermann for his obscene poem, the law prohibiting publishing such documents is seen as a little-used hangover from a less democratic era.
No interest in pursuing H&K
The ongoing scandal, as far as Rothbauer is concerned, is that the same Stuttgart state prosecutor has been sitting on an investigation against Heckler & Koch for several years. Grässlin and Rothbauer originally pressed charges against the firm in 2010 when they found out that H&K had sold thousands of G36 assault rifles to Mexico, despite Germany's prohibition against selling weapons into conflict zones (the guns were subsequently found in the arsenal of corrupt police forces in the north of the country, where drug wars have been raging for decades).
Since then, Grässlin and Rothbauer have filed three more sets of charges against H&K, including corruption, and fraud for hiding flaws in the G36 from buyers. But the prosecutor has been slow to follow up on the investigation, and has not pursued subsequent charges against anyone in the German government.
"You can hardly use the word scandal anymore because it's used so much, but this really is a scandal," said Rothbauer. "He didn't pursue the charges that I brought against the people in the economics ministry, in the foreign ministry, and in the export control authority, but instead found the time to pursue charges against people who helped to uncover this brutal, deadly deal - as a thank you, using a paragraph [of the criminal code] that is highly controversial - it's really unjustifiable. It's a massive fiasco."