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Former Bundeswehr Workers on Warpath

January 25, 2002

As many as 730 former workers with the German army plan to drag German Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping to court. They demand compensation for exposure to radiation at Bundeswehr facilities.

The Bundeswehr will be in the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasonsImage: AP

German Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping will soon have to turn his attention back to a case that sparked much public debate a year ago.

Former radar technicians working for the German army and the former army of the communist German Democratic Republic are planning to sue the German Defence Ministry.

The technicians, some of them suffering from cancer, claim that they were exposed to excessive amounts of radiation while working at Bundeswehr radar facilities.

So far the Bundeswehr has only accepted five cases of soldiers who suffered health damage directly linked to the job. That out of a total of 1,868 claimants.

In June last year, Rudolf Scharping had promised speedy processing of the applications as well as generous help to the affected.

Today Reiner Guelen, a lawyer representing 730 clients, 190 of whom have died from cancer, accuses the Defence Minister of breaking his promise to compensate victims.

He plans to file a suit against the Ministry in a Berlin court in March. The suit would call for euro 127 million ($111 million) in damages and compensation.

Most of the affected workers worked as mechanics and operated the radar machines, and as a consequence were directly exposed to high levels of radiation.

According to Scharping, several committees were set up within the Defence Ministry to caution workers on the radiation danger in certain high-risk jobs, and also to ascertain if the technicians did actually work long enough at their jobs to blame their illnesses on it.

He also said that those whose claims were recognised, could expect an additional pension ranging from 225 to 1,878 DM.

But the lawyers representing the former Bundeswehr workers say the lackadaisical reaction of the Defence Ministry is "a scandal".

They say that among those whose claims were rejected last year, were several workers who had proven that they had been exposed to high radiation over several decades.

Experts apparently had warned as early as in the 1950s that the unprotected machines and nuclear reactors could cause damage to health in the long run.

But the Defence authorities turned a blind eye, and it was only in the 1980s that they installed protective measures.

Lawyer Reiner Guelen is prepared to fight to the end and warns, "The Defence Ministry should make no mistake. This suit will have a bitter end".

He is also preparing lawsuits against US companies, who manufactured the radar facilities.