Mon, Feb 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Charging of police chief sparks torture debate

LAST RESORT Wolfgang Daschner generated both sympathy and anger after threatening pain to force a kidnapper to reveal the whereabouts of his victim


A decision to bring charges against a deputy head of police who ordered a senior colleague to threaten to inflict pain on a suspect has triggered a debate in Germany over the use of police torture.

Most German newspapers Saturday supported the decision by prosecutors to file charges against Wolfgang Daschner, of the Frankfurt police department, who has admitted authorizing the threat to force a kidnapper to reveal the whereabouts of his victim.

Unknown to police at the time, the 11-year-old son of a prominent banker had already been killed by the kidnapper and his body dumped in a lake.

The case when it comes to court is bound to raise the question: can torture or the threat of torture be used by police as a last resort if it means saving a person's life?

Much sympathy and understanding had been expressed for the police chief, who found himself four days after the disappearance of Jakob von Metzler in September 2002 facing an uncooperative kidnap suspect.

Magnus Gaefgen, a 28-year-old law student, had already sent police on a false trail and Daschner felt time was running out.

Only after Gaefgen had been threatened and told by Daschner that a torture expert was on his way by helicopter to join the interrogation did the suspect confess the boy was dead and reveal his whereabouts.

Daschner, a 60-year-old career policeman with a reputation for correctness, even made a note in the files of his order to the chief inspector in charge of questioning to "inflict Magnus Gaefgen with pain" to try to make him reveal the truth.

He also informed prosecutors of his action, arguing that he was justified in threatening the man in the special circumstances.

Daschner received support at the time from politicians including the Hesse state premier, Roland Koch, who said he could understand why the police chief had taken the action he did in an extreme situation.

Following a year-long investigation, prosecutors say they have decided to bring charges against Daschner of "instigating an act of intimidation" rather than the more serious charge of "extortion of testimony by duress." Charges of "intimidation" and "abuse of office" have been brought against the 50-year-old police inspector.

A spokesman for the Frankfurt prosecutors office said it would be more difficult to obtain a conviction against Daschner on the more serious charge as police were not trying to force a confession but trying to save a life.

The charge was welcomed by the head of the German Police Union, Wolfgang Speck, who said the use or threat of torture must remain an absolute taboo in Germany, but that Daschner's action demonstrated the extreme situations in which police sometimes found themselves.

Dieter Wiefelspuetz, parliamentary home affairs expert for the ruling Social Democrats, said Daschner had discredited the rule of state law and should never be allowed to work in a position of similar responsibility again.

And in a country in which there are still strong memories of the use of torture by the Nazis, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said in a commentary that Germany knew better than most that there "are things on which the essence of civilization stands or falls."

The ban on the use of torture "is a pillar of the state of law which was built here after 1945 and on which the country can be proud." It was right to file charges, and it was right the police officers would now have to answer for their actions, it said.

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