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Europe Takes Time Prosecuting Terror

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Seven hundred people were arrested on terrorism-related charges in Europe last year. Two weeks ago, another three were detained in Germany, and eight more in Denmark. Arrests and police searches of homes and offices tend to get a lot of attention there.

NPR's Emily Harris examines what happens in Europe after the headlines of plots and detentions fade.

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EMILY HARRIS: The three young man arrested in Germany for allegedly planning a massive bomb attack are still in jail. They're expected to stay locked up through a trial. In Denmark, six of the eight arrested on similar charges were released the same day with much less fanfare than their capture. They could still face trial. But Middle East Studies Professor Jakob Feldt of the University of Southern Denmark says the fact they're now free has raised doubts about what the police are doing.

Dr. JAKOB FELDT (University of Southern Denmark): When we see six people released again after they've been arrested, it's because the judges think that there's not enough evidence to hold them. So there's been a discussion, if the police are producing fear in society by arresting people that they don't have a chance to get convicted.

HARRIS: Half the terrorism suspects arrested in Great Britain over the past six years were released. Almost a quarter of those charge were acquitted, or for other reasons the cases were dropped. In Germany, 240 legal proceedings involving Islamic terrorism were started since the year 2000. By March this year, a third had been dropped. Eight of the 240 cases had concluded with 15 people jailed.

Liberal politician Wolfgang Neskovic says the slow legal process makes him wonder if justice is the aim.

Mr. WOLFGANG NESKOVIC (German Judge): (Through translator) There have been a lot of cases open, but very few judgments. These could lead to the conclusion that in the end, legal proceedings are not about sentencing someone, but to gather information. And that's actually an abuse of the legal system.

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HARRIS: Others reject that suggestion, saying it's normal in the criminal justice system for more people to be arrested then charged, and that these complicated terrorism cases take time.

Whether the judicial process helps deter would-be terrorists seems an open question. Michael Kennedy is the president of Eurojust, an agency which aims to improve coordination of cross-border criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Mr. MICHAEL KENNEDY (President, Eurojust): We must remember that the prosecution process is downstream. The emphasis or the onus on prevention is on not only the police and investigation intelligence services, but also in the communities themselves from which many of the terrorists have come.

HARRIS: There are some indications jail time can help terrorists recruit. There's been at least one serious case of prison recruitment in Spain. In the Netherlands, those jailed on terrorist charges are now kept apart from other prisoners, precisely to avoid recruitment.

Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Clingendael Institute, says there were a few cases of young men in the Netherlands even flaunting the fact they were suspected of terrorism.

Dr. EDWIN BAKKER (Terrorism Expert, Clingendael Institute for International Relations): They use very much affect of that they had been arrested to raise their own status within the group. And some of these youngsters have become very important figures in certain neighborhoods for radicalization.

HARRIS: One issue often accompanying high profile arrests is whether to increase police powers. In Germany, the recent arrest reignited a long simmering debate about allowing secret Internet-based searches of suspect's computers. They're banned in Germany, and police here rely on other countries, including the U.S., for help monitoring communications.

Another proposal here is to keep track of people who've converted to Islam, and because of that, could be a security threat. Two of the three men arrested for the alleged bomb plot two weeks ago were Muslim converts. Conservative politician Wolfgang Bosbach says this would not be the thought police.

Mr. WOLFGANG BOSBACH (German Politician): (Through translator) We don't register thoughts. We register facts. If someone becomes a Muslim because their spouse is Muslim so that they can share their faith, there's no problem. But if someone has been in touch with fanatic, violent Islam, then converts in order to be violent because of their religious conviction, that's a completely different story.

HARRIS: Despite the soul searching in Germany about so-called homegrown terrorists after the recent arrests, it won't be easy to make tracking converts part of the law.

Ayman Mazyek with Germany Central Council of Muslims is a vocal opponent.

Mr. AYMAN MAZYEK (General Secretary, Central Council of Muslims, Germany): (Through translator) Today, they're demanding a registry for converts. What would they ask for tomorrow? Perhaps, a crescent from the forehead of Muslims?

HARRIS: Europe's latest terrorism-related arrests happened last Wednesday. Three people said to have ties to al-Qaida were detained on suspicion of posing threats against Austria and Germany on the Internet. One was released Friday. The other two are expected to be held until trial.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.