Wednesday, May 24, 2006

German constitutional court declares dragnet searches unconstitutional

The German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) yesterday ruled that dragnet searches through through databases are unconstitutional if there is no concrete danger involved.

After 9/11, authorities in the German state of Northrhine Westphalia had initiated such a search to track down "sleepers" who might become Islamist terrorists. University student databases were used as well as communal registration office data and the central database of foreigners. Criteria used included male gender, age between 18 and 40, present or former enrollment in higher education, Islamic faith, and country of birth. The persons who met these criteria (apparently some 32000) were then investigated further by the local policy forces. No "sleepers" were detected as a result of this exercise. (A German language press release from the FCC is here, an International Herald Tribune summary here, Deutsche Welle English language service has it here).

A Moroccan student (at the time) of Islamic faith complained against having been subjected to this procedure, and took his case all the way to the FCC which eventually ruled in his favour. The Court ruled that the dragnet search had violated the student's "right to informational self-determination", a right the Court had developed from the Basic Law (the German constitution) some twenty five years ago. The Court ruled further that a dragnet search was such an intrusion to the student's fundamental rights that it would only be admissible if there was a concrete danger. While this could in principle also apply to the case of a terrorist threat, more concrete information about the threat was required than had been present in the post-9/11 dragnet searches.

The ruling has met different echoes in German political life. While Bavarian interior minister Beckstein (a law-and-order supporter) called it "a black day in the fight against terrorism", civil rights groups and the liberal press have praised the FCC for upholding civil rights that have been under threat in recent years. The latter also pointed out that dragnet searches like this can lead to hysteria as whole groups of the population are sweepingly suspected of presenting a terrorist danger.

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