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German government criticized over terror compensation

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
December 13, 2017

One year on from the Christmas market terrorist attack, people affected are set to get more money and better help. It's the latest step in efforts to make up for a poor initial response to the tragic events in Berlin.

Deutschland Anschlag mit LKW auf Weihnachtsmarkt in Berlin
Image: Reuters/P. Kopczynski

In March, the former state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, was appointed the government's official commissioner for the victims of the attack at the Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz on December 19, 2016. On Wednesday, together with German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, he presented his final report. It doesn't make for comfortable reading.

"I think we can agree that we were not prepared for a terrorist attack of such dimensions in Germany," Beck said. "Efforts were made. The German President talked with victims and relatives, and people showed that they cared in various ways. But victims and relatives complained about the lack of state recognition of the sort the French president showed after events there."

Angela Merkel, who paid a surprise visit to the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market yesterday, has been criticized for failing to personally acknowledge the victims of the attack, which killed twelve and injured scores of others, some permanently. Merkel plans to meet with victims at the Chancellor's Office on Monday.

Those affected have also criticized that they weren't provided with timely information or given adequate government financial support. Horror stories about victims' families being handed bills for the costs of autopsies, replete with warnings about potential overdue penalties, before Christmas last year shocked both the German public and the victims commissioner.

"I didn't want to believe that something like that could be true until I held one of those letters in my hand," Beck said.

To make sure that such "mistakes," as Beck called them, don't happen in future and to improve the support received by victims, the commission has issued a number of recommendations.

Maas and Beck
Maas (left) and Beck presented the 35-page report on WednesdayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Help on the ground and in the long term

In the aftermath of such events, Beck and his team have proposed establishing information centers for victims and relatives at the site of terrorist attacks, as well as a point of contact in the government. They also want to streamline procedures for notifying family members of people who have been seriously injured or killed. Beck cited the example of investigators showing up at people's homes to collect DNA samples from victims' toothbrushes before family members had even been informed their loved ones were likely victims.

Beck said that in making his recommendation he had been guided generally by practice in Israel, a country with an extensive history of dealing with terrorist attacks.

Beck said that the government should take the lead in advising victims and relatives on how to get support and compensation payments. There was great initial confusion after the December 19 attacks, in which Tunisian terrorist Anis Amri drove a truck through the Christmas market, because part of the money came from a fund primarily set up to deal with motor vehicle accidents and not under the aegis of the Victims Compensation Law.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that the government would rewrite German law to rule out such absurdities in future.

Lukasz Urban's grave
Many of the victims, including the Polish man from whom the truck was stolen, were foreignersImage: DW/F. Hofmann

Germany in the lower half of the international scale

Germany has thus far paid out some two million euros (2.3 million euros) in compensation and support. Beck said that the government's hardship rules set individual sums of 10,000 euros for immediate family members and 5000 for siblings.

Beck said that in comparison with eight other European countries, the United States and Israel, Germany was in the lower half of the spectrum in terms of financial assistance offered to victims of terrorism.

He called for the amount of monetary aid to be increased "significantly," although neither he nor Maas want to name a concrete figure, saying that the needs of every victim should be evaluated individually.

Maas said that the government accepted this demand and stressed the responsibility of the state to those affected by terrorism.

"These people became victims because they represented all of us," Maas said. "And for that reason the state and society must not abandon them."

Merkel visits Breitscheidplatz market
Merkel has come under fire for taking so long to personally engage with the Christmas market victimsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundesregierung/S. Kugler

Reopening wounds

A somber Beck went into minute detail about the damage done in the December 19 attacks, at one point even discussing the destruction of people's "glasses, mobile phones and clothing." There's little doubt that the German government is trying to put some of the early shortcomings in its response to right.

The figurative elephant in room, however, was the catalogue of mistakes regional state and federal authorities made with relation to Amri, who should have been deported before he carried out the attack. Maas said that the government had enacted a number of changes to laws to address those failings, but they are unlikely to be much consolation to victims' families.

"Every indication that there were mistakes made in keeping (Amri) under observation and knowing where the attacker was before the attack reopens the wounds of those affected," Beck conceded.

The events leading up to the Christmas market attack are the subject of investigations at the regional government level, and there have been calls for a federal investigation as well.