The number of right-wing extremists in Germany who have gone underground is higher than previously known. Forty-nine of them are convicted violent criminals. Yet police say a nationwide manhunt is unfeasible.
"A ticking time-bomb" is how Ulla Helpke, the domestic policy spokesperson for the Left Party in Germany's lower parliament, describes some of the German neo-Nazis who have gone underground. "There are at least five from the NPD [far-right German nationalist party] and another nine from their militant groups," the spokesperson said. "You have to keep an eye on those people and put pressure on the authorities here, so they make sure they get arrested."
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There are currently 182 criminals from right-wing extremist groups with warrants out for their arrest. That number was announced when the German government responded to inquiries from the Left Party in February 2013. The last announcement had been made in June 2012, when just 118 right-wing extremists had warrants out for their arrest.
The German government is quick to point out, however, that the uptick in warrants does not represent a trend. Between this year and last, the investigative means by which German authorities track such criminals has changed. "The new method better guarantees a higher degree of thoroughness," read the government's official statement.
A point of comparison was made to November 2012, when the number of outstanding warrants for right-wing extremists stood at 266. The drop from 266 to 182 is due to successful arrests - but also due to the repeal of some of those warrants.
Violent criminals: 49
One reason that figures for underground neo-Nazis have been recently brought to light is the investigation of the right-wing terrorist group, National Socialist Underground (NSU). In spite of warrants for their arrest, the group carried out numerous murders in Germany over the course of many years. The members of the group are accused of killing nine small business owners, all of whom had foreign roots and many of whom were originally from Turkey.
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The German government's recent announcement also provided detailed information regarding the different kinds of criminal accusations that have resulted in the issuing of arrest warrants. Those offenses were very rarely the result of high-profile, politically-motivated crimes. More often the crimes were as simple as a traffic violation or a missing alimony payment. None of the current warrants have been issued as the result of an explicit act of terrorism. Forty-nine neo-Nazis, however, are being sought for violent crimes.
Practically speaking, a manhunt for these criminals is unfeasible, says Sascha Braun, the police union's general counsel. "Most of the warrants are related to individuals who didn't serve previous sentences. To our regret, they only pop up on the police radar during routine patrols." Conducting a manhunt for everyone with a warrant out for their arrest, the general counsel added, is not within the police force's capacity.
Of the existing warrants, more than 100 have been in effect since 2011 - and some, even longer. Ten of the outstanding warrants were first put into effect in 2007.
Hajo Funke, a researcher of right-wing extremism at the Free University Berlin, sees the changes enacted by German authorities as largely positive. "I think the discovery of the NSU terror cell and the public discussion about it has caused some police departments to pay more attention," he said. Funke points out that the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and, to a lesser extent, Saxony have both made strides in combating right-wing extremism.
For the Left Party's Ulla Jelpke, the most important thing, though, is that the issuea remain topical. "This is only happening because of the pressure we put behind it," she said. Jelpke also demands a new way to analyze such figures. "We don't want to scaremonger here, but when 49 out of 266 people are violent criminals, I think it's important for people to know that."
As for the "harmless" crimes that result in warrants, the NSU is a case-in-point that such warrants should be taken seriously. The right-wing terrorist Uwe Böhnhardt, who had a warrant out for his arrest throughout his affiliation with the underground NSU organization, was first sentenced to a prison term in 1993.
The primary reason? "Driving without a valid license."