Academics Protest Germany's Arrest of Scholar Accused of Aiding Militant Group

Dozens of academics have signed two open letters to Germany's federal prosecutor, protesting the arrest and detention of Andrej Holm, a sociologist at Berlin's Humboldt University who specializes in critical research on urban gentrification. By AISHA LABI

Mr. Holm was arrested on July 31, a few hours after three members of an alleged militant group were arrested on suspicion of attempted arson against four German army vehicles in the State of Brandenburg. Mr. Holm is purported to have met with one of the accused arsonists in "conspiratorial circumstances" earlier this year.

The arrest warrant states that he participated in at least one of those meetings without taking his mobile telephone, and cites that omission as evidence of "conspiratorial behavior." He is also said to have taken part in the "resistance mounted by the extreme left wing" at the Group of Eight economic summit held in June in Heiligendamm, Germany, which was attended by President Bush and other world leaders.

Long-Term Surveillance

On the evening of Mr. Holm's arrest, the workplaces and homes of three other individuals in Berlin, including another academic who has thus far been identified only as Matthias B., were searched by the police. The warrants used in those proceedings revealed that the four Berliners had been under surveillance since September 2006. Charges are now pending against all four, but only Mr. Holm was taken into custody.

After his arrest, Mr. Holm was flown to Karlsruhe, the seat of Germany's federal court, for a pretrial hearing and has been held since then in solitary confinement in Berlin's Moabit prison, his supporters say. They say that he is allowed only one hour of activity each day and that his meetings with his lawyer are conducted through a glass partition. He has reportedly not been permitted to shower since his arrest.

Mr. Holm is accused of suspected membership in a terrorist organization under Section 129a of Germany's penal code, a provision dating from the 1970s, when attacks by groups like the Red Army faction sparked widespread terror fears across Germany. The measure has been controversial since its passage, Neil Brenner, a professor of sociology at New York University who is helping to mobilize support for Mr. Holm and Matthias B., said in an interview.

Use of Ideological Links

"What's happening now is that the German federal prosecutor's office is deploying this section in order to persecute particular groups for political reasons," Mr. Brenner said. The law grants such broad discretion to government authorities, he said, that it "gives prosecutors the right to arrest and detain people suspected of having given intellectual or ideological guidance to people who have committed a crime, if the prosecutors can demonstrate some sort of intellectual or ideological link between them."

Their defenders are especially disturbed by the way in which the academic work of Mr. Holm and Matthias B. seems to have been used as evidence against them.

"We strongly reject the outrageous accusation that the academic research activities and the political engagement of Andrej Holm are to be viewed as complicity in an alleged 'terrorist association,'" one of the open letters signed by academics says. "The federal prosecutor, through applying Article S. 129, is threatening the freedom of research and teaching as well as social-political engagement."

The other letter explicitly condemns the alleged militant groups' use of violence. "However," it adds, "we strongly object to the notion of intellectual complicity adopted by the federal prosecutor's office in its investigation."

Saskia Sassen, a Dutch sociologist who will be joining the faculty of Columbia University from the University of Chicago this fall, likens the prosecutor's use of 129a to "attacks on the liberal state" that she believes are taking place in the United States under the USA Patriot Act. "The federal prosecutor is saying that the language they use in their academic writing about gentrification can lead to serious crimes against public order," said Ms. Sassen. "This is the federal prosecutor of Germany, not some low-level policeman," she added incredulously.

Library Connection

The charges against Matthias B., a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin who has chosen not to reveal his full name, allege that he has used "phrases and key words" in his academic writings that are also used by the alleged militant group. The warrant says that, as an employee of a research institute, he has access to libraries where he can inconspicuously do the research needed to help the militant group draft its texts.

Citing Matthias B.'s access to a research library as part of the basis for the charges against him "illustrates the incredible arbitrariness of the federal prosecutor's indictment," Mr. Brenner said. The prosecutor "is indicting Matthias B. for behavior that any urban researcher is required to do by very nature of his job," he added. "In the context of its broader attempt to fight against left-wing violence, the German government is trying to criminalize critical urban research. Scholars using standard terms used in urban studies are being indicted, and these are being used as grounds to link them to an alleged terrorist organization."

Mr. Brenner attended the annual conference of the American Sociological Association last week in New York, where a motion in support of the accused academics was unanimously passed. Supporters in Germany have planned a protest on Wednesday in front of the Berlin prison where Mr. Holm and the accused arsonists are being held.

Mr. Holm's case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Friday.