The death of jailed terrorist Sigurd Debus April 16 after a 10-week hunger strike has again stirred up controversy about prison conditions in West Germany.
At the same time it has ended the hunger strike of about 26 other terrorist convicts or suspects and halted for now the controversy over painful forced feeding of hunger striking prisoners.
Debus, convicted of armed robbery and incitement to complicity in criminal use of explosives, had rejected medical assistance, but was still fed intravenously in his last month.
The 27 or 29 (figures vary) hunger strikers had been refusing food since Feb. 11 as part of what they called their "armed anti-imperialist resistance" to the West German government and society. Their aim was to force the state to treat them as prisoners of war and keep all members of the (Baader-Meinhof) Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Cells together or at least in groups of 10 to 15.
The human rights organization Amnesty International had supported the hunger strikers' demands for better conditions for "political prisoners" and had issued a report condemning "solitary confinement" in West German jails. Conservative West German politicians complain, on the contrary, that terrorists, including convicted murderers, are given privileges that are denied ordinary criminals.
Conditions vary in West Germany's different states. Debus was confined in Hamburg with ordinary criminals and could mix with them, but had no other terrorists in his prison. He could wear his own clothes, decorate his cell himself, possess his own radio and television, leave his open cell at will during the day to go to the courtyard and recreation rooms, and mingle with other prisoners. He could receive private visitors two times a month, for two hours each.
In the high security section of Moabit prison here in West Berlin, Gabriele Rollnik, Angelika Goder, and Gudrun Sturmer -- suspects in the murder of a judge and the kidnapping of a West German politician and an Austrian businessman -- are able to be together between 2:00 pm and 10:00 pm daily. They may spend two hours a day in the courtyard, though they seldom do so. They may receive and send mail. They may -- in contrast to ordinary prisoners -- have unlimited subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and keep up to 20 books in each cell.They may play table tennis or use exercise apparatus in a room set aside for their joint use. They may see their lawyers every day except Sunday, but private visits require court permission.
Under these circumstances what the hunger strikers meant when they objected to "solitary confinement" was primarily the alleged 24-hour sound and photo surveillance of cells. (Prison authorities deny that such surveillance exists.) The strikers also objected to separation of prisoners from visitors by a window or bars, to bad ventilation, and to isolation from normal city noise and from daylight (except in the courtyard).
In a letter to Amnesty International following Debus's death West German Justice Minister Jurgen Schmude rejected the terrorists' key demand that they be held together as prisoners of war. Schmude based this rejection on concern that a large group in the same prison could again become a command center for further criminal acts by terrorists at large, as authorities say has happened in the past.
Mr. Schmude also pointed out that with a few exceptions West German prison officials have given jailed terrorists the opportunity to mix with other prisoners. "The solitary confinement the terrorists allege has thus mostly arisen from their own rejection of mingling with prisoners who do not belong to their organization," Schmude declared to Amnesty International.
He added, however, that various prisons were ready to improve conditions by such measures as planting grass in courtyards; increasing time when small groups of terrorists can come together from the present eight to 10 hours a day; letting relatives visit without being separated by a window or bars; installing refrigerators and cooking apparatus in common rooms; and reducing light and sound insulation.