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Germany ramps up legislation

When German authorities detained 11 suspected members of a radical Palestinian group on Tuesday, it was the latest in a series of developments pointing to links between Germany and terrorism.

The German government, which, like several other European nations, has broadened the powers of security forces and prosecutors since Sept. 11, now wants to rush through parliament additional legislation that will make the support of foreign terrorist groups a crime.

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Dieter Wiefelspütz, a member of parliament and spokesman on home affairs for the governing Social Democrats, says the law will close a loophole that has allowed otherwise inconspicuous, law-abiding citizens to raise funds and plan logistics for terrorist organizations abroad. It follows in the vein of a 1998 European Commission decision to improve international cooperation in combating terrorism.

"It's possible that investigators would be much further now in fighting the Al Qaeda network if the law had already been in existence," the Hamburg-based news-magazine Der Spiegel editorialized.

Germany was shocked by the discovery shortly after Sept. 11 that Hamburg had been home to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohammed Atta.

A possible German connection with an explosion last month outside a synagogue in Tunisia has given fresh impetus to Germany's latest move to toughen anti-terrorism law. The proposal had previously lost momentum after concerns about civil liberties were raised.

With national elections coming up in September, politicians can't afford to look soft on terrorism. Since the deadly blast in Tunisia, which killed 12 German tourists and five others, the Greens, Chancellor Schröder's junior coalition partners, have hastily abandoned their initial resistance to the harsher antiterror law.

Debate had centered around the definition of a terrorist, with critics voicing reservations that the law could strangle support for legitimate movements of national liberation.

But Mr. Wiefelspütz counters: "In 999 of 1,000 cases we know exactly what international terrorism is," he says, adding that "no rational person is arguing that Al Qaeda is a liberation organization. In my opinion the debate is artificial."

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Florian Jessberger, an expert on international criminal law at Humboldt University in Berlin, criticizes the new bill, expected to pass in parliament by next week. "How can a prosecutor in Augsburg know if a sub-group of Abu-Sayyaf [a militant Islamist guerrilla group based in the southern Philippines] is a terrorist organization?"

This week German investigators interviewed a man said to have received a phone call from the driver of the fuel tanker that exploded outside the Tunisian synagogue. A group calling itself the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites has claimed responsibility for the blast. Tunisian officials say the planner had links with Islamic militant cells in five countries, including Germany, and German investigators have been quoted as saying that the links include Al Qaeda.

In a separate development, German police conducted raids nationwide Tuesday, rounding up 11 members of what prosecutors said was a London-based militant Islamic group providing financial and logistical support for Islamic militants and for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Speaking on ARD television, chief federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said the group was planning "a serious crime in Germany," possibly against Israeli or US targets. "We've uncovered a part of this network, but we don't know exactly what's happening in other areas," said Nehm. "...We have to assume that at any time more perpetrators are coming to us from abroad."

Meanwhile, the trial has opened in Frankfurt of five men accused of planning a terrorist attack in Strasbourg, France. In an opening statement read by his lawyer, one of the defendants, an Algerian, admitted his role in a plot to blow up a French synagogue and said he had received training in Afghanistan – but said he had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or the Al Qaeda network.

Amid the tense climate in Germany, "many people see their fear of Islam confirmed," says Anke Bentzin of the Institute for Asia and Africa Studies at Berlin's Humboldt University. "I think these events will have big consequences for immigration policies in Germany, especially toward Muslims," she says.


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