Reports that police took scent samples of militant protestors have incited a controversial debate in Germany on just how far authorities can go. But officials deny that the country is sniffing up the wrong tree.
A number of politicians and experts have turned their nose up at police practices
Taking scent samples from suspected left-wing extremists was "bizarre, curious and very strange," said Dieter Wiefelspütz, internal affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats parliamentary faction.
"The value of insight gained in this whole affair is extremely questionable," Wiefelspütz said Thursday in an interview with German radio WDR.
The federal prosecutor's office as a "very reputable and very professional authority" should better distance itself from this method of investigation, he said.
Samples weren't taken preventatively, says minister
Germany's Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries defended the method, though she said she felt understanding for the criticism. Zypries said she was aware that the scent samples had a "fiercely negative aftertaste" due to their use by the secret police Stasi in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The Stasi took its scent samples on duster-like cloth
Zypries told radio RBB that these measures "were only applied in very seldom cases and not used preventatively or to snoop after someone, as was done in the GDR, but rather to clear up a specific criminal offense."
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble denied accusations that the samples were being systematically collected and stored in order to identify militant G8 protestors.
"The scent samples taken are directly related to proceedings led by the public prosecutor," Schäuble said. "It is utter rubbish to assume that the scent samples were taken preventatively and in view of protestors at the G8 summit Heiligendamm."
Scent samples are "very intimate" means of identification
Zypries confirmed that the prosecutor's investigation in the current case was trying to determine whether five suspects had held a certain piece of paper found at the scene of a crime. Suspects were asked to hold a bundle of metal tubes in their clenched fists for several minutes to absorb personal odor. The pipes were then sealed and marked with their names.
Their scent samples were subsequently immediately destroyed, Zypries said.
But Germany's data protection commissioner Peter Schaar questioned the legal basis of the method. He said it was not one explicitly stated in the code of criminal procedure and should only be applied after the necessary legal revision was taken.
"It appears to be rather dubious to me," Schaar told Thursday's edition of the daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. Scent samples were an uncertain means to identify someone and also "very intimate," he said.
"They can provide information on illnesses, eating habits and other personal traits," Schaar said.