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German Arson Prosecution Goes Up in Smoke

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The charred shell of a house overlooking the river in this Baltic port city keeps a dirty secret. Somebody, on a winter night a year and a half ago, was filled with enough hate to torch the four-story building that housed asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East, along with new immigrants from Poland.

Ten people died, some in the smoke and flames, others when they jumped from windows. Thirty-nine more were injured, some critically.

News of the disaster flashed around the world: If the fire was, as suspected, a racist attack on foreigners, then it was the worst such incident since the 1990 unification of the former East and West Germany--the worst, in fact, in the nation’s postwar history.

But was it racism? And if so, who were the racists? And why did it happen in Luebeck, an agreeable old trading center of weathered statues and copper steeples, just west of the border between Germany’s former halves? Was there a connection with the arson attacks on Luebeck’s synagogue, in 1994 and again in 1995, the first fires set at a Jewish temple in Germany since the end of the Nazi era?

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Sadly, after a 17-month wait, after the arrest of a suspect and a lengthy trial--the verdict is scheduled for Monday--this country is no closer to answering these troubling questions than it was on the night of the Jan. 18, 1996, blaze.

In an extraordinary move this month, the lead prosecutor in the case told the court that he did not have enough evidence to convict his suspect and recommended acquittal. He had been trying to prosecute Safwan Eid, a young Lebanese who lived in the hostel. Eid was accused of setting the fire in revenge for an undetermined personal affront.

The trial has continued since the prosecutor’s remarkable announcement under procedural rules that grant lawyers representing the fire’s victims and survivors a chance to speak, even though the prosecutor has thrown in the towel.

But the process has little clear purpose anymore, and there is considerable concern here that Eid will be acquitted not because he is innocent but merely because of sloppy police work.

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Key pieces of evidence have gone missing over the course of the trial, including a large piece of plywood that might have helped answer the central question of where the fire was set.

Observers are complaining that the courtroom has been turned into a political showcase, where German intellectuals are fighting a battle over the treatment of foreigners in general--an ideological clash with little or no direct bearing on the facts of the case.

“The whole trial has been a great misfortune,” says Guenter Harig, a Lutheran pastor in Luebeck who monitors anti-foreigner sentiment. “It began on the basis of investigations that weren’t complete. These things can happen anywhere, but they don’t always have such unhappy, evil consequences as in this case.”

Whoever set the fire early that January morning did an effective job: The flames engulfed the wooden hostel so quickly that the 49 people sleeping inside had no time to exit safely. Some jumped in terror from the windows; others perished while struggling down the stairs in the heat and darkness. Six of the dead were children.

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News of the deaths threw Germany into a state of shock. This wasn’t the first fatal arson of an asylum-seekers’ hostel, but no other attack had such a death toll.

More troubling, the Luebeck fire came amid hope that Germany’s spate of right-wing attacks on foreigners was ending.

Police surveillance of neo-Nazis had been stepped up after a 1992 arson attack in the town of Moelln, 16 miles south of here, left a Turkish grandmother and two girls dead. The asylum laws were also amended to allow fewer foreigners into Germany, so that fewer xenophobic passions could be roused.

Since these changes, the number of reported attacks on foreigners had been tapering off.

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Taming the neo-Nazi beast in these ways was not easy for Germany, however.

Until 1992, this country was proud of its asylum laws, among the most liberal in the world. Granting asylum to virtually all refugees was long seen here as a fitting way to atone for German wrongs committed earlier in the century.

But after the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain led to a massive flood of asylum-seekers from Eastern Europe, the center-right government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl began trying to set limits on asylum. This project set off one of the most bitter political debates in recent times, with Kohl’s opponents arguing that the very soul of postwar Germany was at stake.

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Eventually, enough opposition politicians caved in to allow the revisions to pass. The left has never forgiven the apostates, and the amended laws continue to be controversial.

It is this painful discussion that overshadows the courtroom in Luebeck, tainting the proceedings.

When the prosecutors state that Eid is guilty, they are accused by the defense and critics of not dealing in facts but promoting the Kohl government’s restrictive new asylum laws.

Many in Germany still believe that it was a neo-Nazi attack. On the night of the fire, the police did pick up four youths, three of them found loitering near the burning hostel with singed hair and eyelashes. (The fourth had driven off in a stolen car.) All four were linked to the extreme-right scene in the area, and one went by the nickname “Little Adolf.”

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This seemed to confirm concerned Germans’ worst fears: The Luebeck fire was yet another right-wing attack, with all the symbolic meaning such an assault carries in Germany.

“It was in Germany that industrial murder was invented,” says Harig, the Lutheran pastor. “It could have happened in any country, but it happened here. We will always have to live with this. We have no choice.”

But the four youths were released after a day’s questioning--and after samples of their burned hair were sealed in plastic bags--because they had an alibi. The next day, Eid, the young Lebanese, was arrested.

Now Germany had a chance to heave a sigh of relief: Perhaps the fire had not been set by neo-Nazis. Perhaps this weary country did not have to carry its sins-of-the-past cross once again. Perhaps the disputed new asylum laws were working.

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The case against Eid was based on the testimony of one man: Jens Leonhardt, a rescue worker, who testified that Eid told him, “It was us,” while being loaded into an ambulance.

Eid denies having said any such thing, and the police have been unable to establish any clear motive on his part for burning down the hostel.

But no matter. The arson attack was making international headlines, and the police urgently needed a suspect and had one. The prosecution so quickly slapped Eid with 49 counts of murder, attempted murder and arson that his lawyers have been labeling it a political trial ever since.

“They want to keep the suspicion alive in the minds of the German people that the arsonist was someone who lived in the house,” charges Barbara Klawitter, one of Eid’s lawyers. “That way, no one in Germany will have to worry about hatred against foreigners anymore.”

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Klawitter, her colleagues and others on the German left have tried to reawaken the suspicions against the four youths. But the plastic bags holding samples of their singed hair have mysteriously disappeared.

“The police and prosecutors were looking for too long in one direction, and when they finally turned around and started looking in another direction, all the evidence was gone,” Harig says. “The best prayer I can pray these days is a prayer for the police.”

As long as the case remains unsolved, he says, “the speculation can go on. The use of the case for political ends can go on. The right can say it was the left, and the left can say it was the right. And nobody has the tools in his hands to say, ‘Stop. Here is what happened.’ ”

Meanwhile, arson attacks continue. In May, another target in Luebeck was set afire: a Roman Catholic church. Harig’s name was found scrawled on the wall, between two spray-painted swastikas. His Lutheran congregation had recently been in the news for defying the amended asylum laws, offering sanctuary to a family of unsuccessful asylum-seekers from Algeria.

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On June 13, police in Luebeck announced that they had apprehended the church arsonists: three young men, with what the police called “a poorly thought-out, vague ideology.”

No sooner did the police announce their arrests than another church was set ablaze, this time in the nearby town of Husum. Police have taken a suspect into custody but said they are still pursuing leads that could result in further arrests.

And this week, unknown vandals painted more swastikas on another church in Luebeck, as well as on the office that novelist Gunter Grass maintains in the city. Grass had recently expressed his support for Harig’s offer of sanctuary to the Algerian family.


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