German prosecutors investigate prize-winning arms trade journalists | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.04.2016

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German prosecutors investigate prize-winning arms trade journalists

Investigations have been opened in Munich against four journalists and an activist for publishing secret information about an illegal Heckler & Koch arms sale. Their attorney condemned the move as an "Erdogan virus."

A five-year saga surrounding Heckler and Koch's illegal export of assault rifles to corrupt Mexican police forces escalated drastically this week.

After pressing charges against six former H&K employees in November, the Stuttgart prosecutor investigating the case has now formally asked his Munich counterpart to open an investigation into four journalists and an activist who uncovered the documents and then published them.

The documents suggest the German government may have colluded with H&K to circumvent its own export controls. The journalists' investigation was turned into a book, a documentary, and a fictional TV feature aired on public broadcaster ARD in September last year - and won one of those accused, film director Daniel Harrich, a Grimme journalism prize earlier this month.

The accusation is centered on internal documents from the Baden-Württemberg-based H&K, one of Germany's biggest small arms manufacturers, as well as from federal government ministries, which were used and printed in the book entitled "Netzwerk des Todes" ("Network of Death").

Jürgen Grässlin

Jürgen Grässlin is among those under investigation

The Stuttgart state prosecutor contends that the documents are vital to its own investigation, which has been running since 2010, and should therefore never have been handed to the media or published. Munich prosecutors have confirmed that they are assessing the request.

Accusing journalists - 'the Erdogan virus'

Holger Rothbauer, the lawyer representing the one activist among those named (Jürgen Grässlin, who has dedicated nearly four decades of his life to suing and otherwise irritating Germany's arms makers), had nothing but disdain for this new move.

"This prosecutor, who has taken five and a half years to investigate our charges - and I would claim with massive support from us and our documents - this same prosecutor needs only three months to prosecute the journalists and people behind the documents - I'll say it, with the Erdogan virus," Rothbauer said, suggesting that, following the Jan Böhmermann affair, German authorities have suddenly found a taste for pursuing media outlets.

Rothbauer also claimed he had never heard of the offenses that his client was accused of committing; namely, releasing documents pertinent to an investigation without clearing it first with the prosecutor - even if those documents were actually uncovered by those releasing them. "It's ridiculous," he told DW. "But we have to take it seriously, and the Munich prosecutor has to investigate." In the event of a conviction, Grässlin, Harrich, and the three other journalists face a fine, or up to a year in prison.

Endless investigation

Grässlin, Rothbauer, and a number of opposition politicians have repeatedly complained about the slow pace of the investigation into H&K's illegal sale, after the initial charges were brought in 2010.

The arms maker, a supplier of several NATO armies and police forces around the world, is accused of delivering thousands of G36 and MP5 rifles to Mexico from 2002 to 2009, in violation of export laws banning the sale of weapons into certain Mexican states where corruption and human rights abuses are rampant.

H&K's rifles have been used in states where German firms are not allowed to export

H&K's rifles have been used in states where German firms are not allowed to export

Last year, some of H&K's G36 rifles were found in the arsenal of the Iguala police force thought to have been complicit in the disappearance and probable murder of 43 protesting students.

Last November, five years after Grässlin and Rothbauer filed the charges, Stuttgart prosecutors announced that six former H&K employees were under investigation for conspiracy to break German export laws, including ex-CEO Peter Beyerle. After his retirement from the firm, Beyerle went on to become president of a state court in Baden-Württemberg - a fact that Rothbauer and Grässlin said explains the slow progress of the investigation.

But the Stuttgart investigator defended the time-scale. "People can't really understand what it involves," - spokesman Jan Holzner told DW. "For one thing we had to go through the foreign legal assistance, and in Mexico it's not always so easy to get information. It's always very protracted and complicated."

Holzner also said that every single possible individual involved in each weapons delivery had to be checked, though he admitted that only one officer had been investigating the case.

At the moment, there seems little hope of bringing anyone in the government to account for the illegal sales. Holzner also confirmed that other charges brought in 2010 by Grässlin and Rothbauer - against officials in the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA) - have been dropped, though the statute of limitations had expired on them anyway.

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