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German furor over release of 70s guerrillas

By Noah Barkin
Reuters
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 6:50 PM

BERLIN (Reuters) - Nearly 30 years have passed since Dirk Schleyer's father was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Army Faction (RAF), a violent group of young revolutionaries that terrorized West Germany in the 1970s and 80s.

But his voice still quakes with anger as he reflects on one of the darkest chapters in the country's post-war history and contemplates the possibility that his father's killers could soon be released from prison.

"These people haven't even shown remorse," Schleyer, 54, told Reuters. "It's all very tough for my entire family."

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a request for the release of Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a leading RAF member who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for her role in the murders of leading German establishment figures, including industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer.

The move, which comes as President Horst Koehler considers a pardon for Mohnhaupt's former colleague Christian Klar, has sparked a furious debate in Germany pitting outraged relatives of the RAF's victims against politicians who say the killers have done their time and no longer pose a threat to society.

At the heart of the controversy is the country's readiness to draw a line under a turbulent period of violence and paranoia which shook West Germany's nascent democracy to its core.

The RAF, also known as the "Baader-Meinhof Gang" after founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, rose from the student protests of the late 1960s and the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Its members started by experimenting in alternative lifestyles in the "free love" communes of West Berlin and Hamburg before turning violent in a coordinated campaign of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings against the German elite and U.S. military personnel.

Supported by about a quarter of Germans in its early years, the group became less ideological and more pragmatic as the years went by as it sought the release of jailed comrades and secured funds through armed robberies.

"The group tapped into deep German anxieties about the health and legitimacy of postwar German democracy," said Jeremy Varon, a professor of history at Drew University in the U.S. state of New Jersey and author of a book on the RAF.

"Opponents of the RAF feared they might destabilize the new democracy in the same way Communists and the Nazis destabilized Weimar."

SECOND GENERATION

The group, which announced it was disbanding in 1998, is suspected of killing 34 people between 1972 and 1991. Some 26 RAF members died during that period and another 26 were sentenced to life in prison.

Many of them, mostly secondary members, have since been released or pardoned and now work as teachers, accountants, filmmakers and journalists -- some under assumed names. Only four, including Mohnhaupt and Klar, remain incarcerated.

Mohnhaupt, 57, was a prominent member of a second generation of RAF members who continued the class war after Baader and Meinhof were caught and committed suicide.

She and Klar, who have each spent over 24 years behind bars, were involved in the murders of Dresdner Bank head Juergen Ponto and federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback, who was shot in April 1977 while waiting at a traffic light in his car.

Their most public victim was Schleyer, a former Nazi party member, who was president of West Germany's powerful employers' association in the 1970s and an object of ridicule for the left, who denounced him as a caricature of the "arch-capitalist pig."

Dragged out of his car by masked assailants in September 1977, he was held hostage for over a month as the RAF demanded the release of jailed comrades at Stuttgart's Stammheim prison.

A black-and-white photograph of an exhausted-looking Schleyer with a hand-written slogan "prisoner for 31 days" became an iconic image of 1970s West Germany. Behind him on a white wall is the RAF's symbol of a star and a rifle.

Schleyer was executed in a forest in France. The identity of the RAF member who shot him remains a mystery.

"The worst part is that we still don't know who pulled the trigger, who the actual murderer was," Schleyer's son Dirk said. "This will remain a mystery if Mohnhaupt and Klar are released. We'll never know, we'll never know."

REMORSE

One of the chief arguments of those who want Mohnhaupt and Klar to remain in prison is that neither has ever publicly expressed remorse for their crimes.

German media report that Mohnhaupt still views the RAF as her life. Klar has refused to talk to the press since giving an interview in 2001 in which he said remorse was "not an issue in the context of our battle."

Der Spiegel magazine reported at the weekend, however, that Klar wrote to then-President Johannes Rau in 2003 acknowledging his guilt and regret for the suffering of his victims.

Many of those in Germany who support the release of Klar and Mohnhaupt say the issue of remorse is secondary. For them, the prisoners no longer pose a security risk and will have soon served the minimum term for a life sentence under German law.

"The prisoners should have the chance for a new life," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a leading member of the Greens party who as a lawyer once defended RAF members. "The victims' arguments are understandable, but they must be treated like any other criminals. True remorse cannot be forced."

Varon, of Drew University, says the legal arguments mask the true nature of a debate, which at its roots, he says, is about German political reconciliation.

"What we're seeing is a recognition by the German justice system that the wounds need to be healed and not allowed to fester," he said.

A court in Stuttgart will make a final decision on Mohnhaupt's release in the first half of February. Klar's sentence means he will be behind bars until at least 2009 unless he receives a pardon from Koehler before that.

© 2007 Reuters