Germany′s ′straight-talking′ judge retires | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.04.2012
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Germany's 'straight-talking' judge retires

No other German judge has conducted more terror trials than Ottmar Breidling. At the start of this month he went into retirement.

Prozess gegen Sauerland-Gruppe Der Vorsitzende Richter Ottmar Breidling steht am Montag (10.08.2009) in Düsseldorf im Gerichtssaal des Oberlandesgerichtes. Im Terrorprozess gegen die islamistische Sauerland-Gruppe in Deutschland haben die Angeklagten ihre Ankündigung wahr gemacht und mit umfassenden Geständnissen begonnen. In den vergangenen Wochen hatten die vier Männer in der Haft im Beisein von Beamten des Bundeskriminalamts mehr als 1000 Seiten Geständnisse zu Protokoll gegeben. Foto: Federico Gambarini dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ Prozess gegen Sauerland-Gruppe

Richter Ottmar Breidling

The "Suitcase Bomber," the "Caliph from Cologne," 18 members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) - all these extremists came before Ottmar Breidling to be tried. The media dubbed him "Richter Tacheles" or the "straight-talking judge."

He says he is not proud of that nickname, but he does stand by it, "because it touches on what he likes doing."

His message is that terrorism trials in particular should be conducted as transparently as possible - they should make it "visible to the outside world that a true constitutional democracy can deal with such challenges."

Breidling is a gifted talker. He speaks in facts, but doesn't reveal his opinions or personal information easily. In minute-long sequences he shares his guiding principles, values and rules - never losing his thread.

A doctor at heart

"Championing what you believe in" has a special resonance for Breidling.

He says his godfather, who defended the interests of Jewish banks under the Third Reich, is his moral compass.

His house was targeted during Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated anti-Semitic attacks throughout Nazi Germany in 1938, commonly known as the night of broken glass.

The words "Jew lawyer" were smeared on the façade of his house.

Youssef El H. during the trial

Youssef El H. was tried as the 'Suitcase Bomber'

Breidling first wanted to become a doctor. He started a degree in medicine in Cologne, before moving to Berlin to study law.

"My parents wondered whether all this swapping around was worth it," he says. "I never had that worry."

When senior barristers advised him to work for a couple of years as a judge following his studies, he ended up in the regional court in Dusseldorf, "and for once I stayed there."

Right-wing extremism in the East

Later, in the Potsdam Justice Ministry, Breidling headed the department that dealt with right-wing extremism, before taking supervisory control over the public prosecutor's office.

The first cases that Breidling dealt with were arson attacks on asylum seekers in the former East Germany, and other racially-motivated assaults.

He vividly recalls how these would spike on the birthdays of prominent Nazis, when right-wing extremists would march in the streets.

'Be ready for anything'

In Dusseldorf in the 1980s, Breidling was involved in the sensational trial against PKK members.

At that time he would work six days a week to get on top of the files, a habit he later retained to the complaints of his wife.

"For us judges, the PKK trial was a professional penal camp," he says.

"There were five of us, plus two additional judges, and there were up to 60 lawyers and many more defendants that ever before."

He was immersed in the allegations against the PKK and in procedural strategies against terrorists. "I think that we developed a way of conducting negotiations that allowed us to maintain the upper hand: the court had the final say."

Members of the Sauerland Group on trial

The Sauerland Group on trial in Düsseldorf

Breidling gained a reputation for his step-by-step enforcement of clear rules in his subsequent trials against Islamist leaders: in 2008, he sentenced the attackers who left a suitcase filled with explosives in Cologne's central station to life imprisonment.

In the so-called "Sauerland trial," he handed down long sentences to four defendants from the "Islamic Jihad Union" who had planned attacks on American bases in Germany.

When judges enter the courtroom, the defendants are supposed to stand. During the hearing, no one is aloud to pray aloud in the courtroom. Anyone disrupting proceedings is asked to leave. Breidling asks for advice from Islamic scholars over issues over religious clothing in court.

"I try to be prepared for everything, to have played over every scenario in my mind before it occurs," he says. "That requires hard work, but it allows me to react quickly. There should be no surprises."

Technology against terror

Breidling was never one to be stuck in the past. He was always open to new ideas and is dismissive of those who use computers as an "updated typewriter."

He became the first to use GPS technology as a method of evaluation - a decision that was later backed up by Germany's highest court.

The "Suitcase Bomber" trial made him an enthusiast of CCTV cameras in public spaces.

"Without video surveillance in Cologne central station it would not have been possible to catch the culprit," he says. "I would really hope that they are made more easy to use for those dealing with the law."

The 65-year-old is now planning to share his experiences and his advice in training seminars.

He wants to give young lawyers more "courage to use all areas of the [criminal] code."

He retains an office in court in Dusseldorf and continues to go there a couple of days a week.

He says the only thing that has changed in his first few weeks of retirement is his "Sunday-evening-feeling."

But, he jokes, "I won't start playing golf seven days a week." Instead he's planning to write a handbook for judges and barristers on the subject that has occupied his working life.

Author: Johanna Schmeller / ji
Editor: Nathan Witkop