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Berlin terror compensation worries

Jefferson Chase
January 3, 2017

Those injured and the families of those killed in the December 19 Christmas market attack are entitled to support. But some worry that the long-term money available isn't enough, and the path to aid is rather unusual.

Berlin Breitscheidplatz Wiedereröffnung Weihnachtsmarkt
Image: DW/F. Hofmann

Victims of violent crime in Germany - such as the terrorist attack on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz square on December 19 - have a right to state assistance. But the nature of the attack, in which an assailant drove a large truck through a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring at least 55, has highlighted a curiosity in German law.

Normally, those injured or the relatives of those killed in a terrorist crime in Germany would fall under the Victims Compensation Law. Among other things, it requires the German state to support people who are unable to work after being injured in violent crimes. But because the December 19 attacks involved a motor vehicle, claimants have to apply to the Verkehrsopferhilfe, an assistance fund set up to aid victims of road accidents.

By law, compensation from that fund is limited to 7.5 million euros ($7.8 million). More than 20 of the people injured at the market were still in hospital as of Monday, January 2, and experts worry that the money available may not be adequate to cover all their needs. In an interview with the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper, Berlin Victims Commissioner Roland Weber said that laws needed to be rewritten to avoid disadvantaging the Breitscheidplatz victims.

There is indeed something absurd about the situation. If it is proven that the Polish driver of the truck, as is now thought, was killed by gunfire before suspected terrorist Anis Amri attacked the market with the vehicle, he would fall under the Victims Compensation Law, while the others killed and injured would not. So does that mean that people in need of help will simply be told that the money has run out?

Deutschland LKW nach dem Anschlag am Breitscheidplatz in Berlin
The fact that the murder weapon was a truck has implications for compensationImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Long-term costs remain unknown

In the short term, definitely not. The Traffic Assistance Fund, which is subordinate to The German Insurers (GDV) organization, is by no means the only source of financial support for the victims of December 19.

"German law stipulates the Guarantee Fund can only pay compensation when the victim doesn't receive compensation from anyone else," a representative of the GDV, which doesn't name its spokespeople, told DW. "That means, for instance, that the Traffic Victims Assistance Fund doesn't assume compensation covered by health insurance policies. When no one else is there, that's when the Traffic Victims Assistance Fund steps in."

In other words, the 7.5 million euros is a safety net, not the only money available, and Commissioner Weber agrees that in the near future, victims are well provided for. It's the future he's worried about.

"My criticism concerns the possibility that a dozen of the victims may need help for the rest of their lives," Weber told DW. "If we're talking about a time frame of 20 or 30 years, then things might really start to get tight."

For a variety of reasons, including privacy concerns, information about the injured who are still hospitalized is scant, although there have been confirmed reports of multiple broken bones and head traumas. Weber says doctors have told him that some of the victims are very seriously injured and that diagnoses are difficult.

"When doctors say something like that, you can assume that a few of these people will never recover full health," Weber explained. "What's going to happen to them in 20 or 30 years? That's why I'm calling for the Victims Compensation Law to be amended. The Law doesn't include any time or financial limits."

Deutschland Berlin - Bürger und Flüchtlinge Gedenken der Opfer
Private citizens have also given money to support victimsImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

New laws for new dangers

German insurers would have no problem with changes to the existing legislation.

"When the Traffic Victims Assistance Fund was founded in 1955, it wasn't to compensate the victims of terror attacks - it was to ensure that no victim of a traffic accident was left empty-handed, for instance, in hit-and-run incidents," the GDV spokesperson said. "The European minimum cover amount of 7.5 million is adequate to that purpose. The idea of a vehicle being used as a weapon wasn't defined in terms of terrorism back then. Those in power will have to come up with a new solution."

Weber, who's a lawyer, says he has urged the government to rewrite the Victims Compensation Law for years. He says that sympathy for the idea in Germany's government is growing and is "very optimistic" that changes are likely to become reality within this legislative period.

The Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs, which is responsible for this law, seems to be on the same wavelength.

"We are preparing an amendment to people's rights to social compensation, of which the Victims Compensation Law is one part," Deputy Ministry Press Spokesman Christian Westhoff told DW. "The plan is to present a draft in early January to the relevant departments and associations and to the federal states. The aim is to collect all the regulations concerning social compensation in a clear and transparent fashion."

Westhoff stressed that compensation was available from a variety of sources. And he is encouraging the victims, many of whom were foreigners, to get more information about assistance from the Traffic Victims Assistance Fund. The application formula is in fact quite simple, although it's only available in German.

Private citizens and companies also have their chance to help. On Monday, the chairman of one of the groups that staged the Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz said that more than 110,000 euros had been donated to an account set up to help the victims. Further donations are expected as people return home from their Christmas holidays.