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Police Threat Fuels Debate On Torture

February 24, 2003

Authorities in Frankfurt, Germany, were ready to resort to violence in an attempt to solve a kidnapping case. And some groups are upset that the ban on torture should ever be called into question.

Police threatened to torture Jakob von Metzler's kidnapper in order to find out the missing boy's whereabouts.Image: AP

The pressure created by the kidnapping case was becoming unbearable for the vice president of the Frankfurt police force. The 11-year-old son of a prominent banking family had been missing for more than three days, and the law student arrested in the case was refusing to talk.

At that point on Oct. 1, Wolfgang Daschner had one troubling question weighing on his mind: "How much more time do we have to save the child's life?" That question led to another question: What would make the suspect talk?

Daschner soon reached his conclusion. "My mission," he said in a recent newspaper interview, "was to let the suspect know one thing: If you don't tell us where the child is, we will begin hurting you."

Comment fuels torture debate

The statement, made this month as prosecutors put the finishing touches on their case against the 27-year-old law student, has triggered a debate over an issue that seemed to have been decided long ago in Germany: Should police be allowed to torture suspects?

According to the German constitution, the answer is no. "Suspects being held in police detention may not be emotionally or physically abused," it says. Internationally, the United Nations has its own Committee Against Torture aimed at stamping out the practice. And German politicians regularly raise this issue in discussions concerning the possible admission of Turkey to the European Union. "Turkey still practices torture," Angela Merkel, the head of Germany's biggest opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, said in December.

Daschner made his decision as police tried to solve a case that shook the capital of the German banking community, Frankfurt. Eleven-year-old Jakob von Metzler did not return home from school on Sept. 27. On the very same day, a ransom note demanding €1 million ($1.07 million) was placed on the entrance gate of the Metzler family's villa. The family agreed to pay, and the money was dropped at a Frankfurt streetcar stop on Sunday night.

Friedrich und Sylvia von Metzler
Friedrich and Sylvia von Metzler mourn the loss of their son.Image: AP

At that point, the case took a positive turn for police. Police officers watching over the streetcar stop soon had a suspect, identified only as Magnus G. They say he picked up the money in his own car and later went on a shopping spree, ordering a Mercedes at a car dealer and booking a flight to Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. On Monday, police decided to make an arrest after they noticed the suspect had made no effort to free the boy.

Police make torture threat

Daschner, knowing the boy had been missing since Friday, then made his threat and let the suspect know just what he had in mind. "Every martial arts specialist knows there are places on your ear that will hurt, hurt a lot, without causing any injuries when you press them," Daschner told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper.

Daschner did not have to carry out his threat. Ten minutes later, the suspect decided to talk. And the message he had confirmed authorities worst fears. The boy was dead. He was killed shortly after the kidnapping, and his body was dumped in a lake north of Frankfurt.

In justifying his decision, Daschner said last week: "Not one single person has been able to tell me what I should have done."

Brigitte Zypries, Justizministerin
Brigitte ZypriesImage: AP

The police vice president also has gained the support from the premier of the state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located. "Personally, I think that in human terms Daschner's actions in this difficult dilemma are completely understandable," Roland Koch said in a weekend newspaper interview.

Group demands respect for ban

But not everyone agrees with Daschner's comments. They have produced an outcry from one human-rights organization and set off an argument within Germany's national coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens.

The head of Amnesty International Germany demanded an investigation be launched into the case. "We call on the Hesse state government to examine the case and determine whether legal penalities should be applied," said Barbara Lochbihler. "The ban on torture must apply in Germany as it should around the world."

Roland Koch
Roland KochImage: AP

The argument between the country's coalition members began last week after Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries suggested that Daschner had acted properly. In a radio interview, the Social Democrat acknowledged that torture was illegal. But she also suggested that the German criminal code allowed police to take extraordinary meaures when they face what the law calls "justified emergency situations." A police officer charged as a result of such action would be acquitted, Zypries said.

In response, a member of the Greens criticized Zypries. "The minister would have been better off not saying anything," said Christa Nickels, a legal expert for the party. "I regret her comments."

The criticism prompted a ministry spokeswoman to clarify Zypries' views, saying that officials were not thinking about altering the ban on torture.

For Daschner, the case is far from over. Proseuctors are considering whether to charge him and police officials with attempting to violently extract information from the suspect. But the vice president said he had no regrets about his actions. "I would do the same thing today."