FECL 46 (August 1996):


During the night of 17-18 January, a fire in a hostel for asylum seekers in the Northern German city of Lübeck caused the death of 10 persons (including five children). At first, a group of German skinheads was suspected of the arson. But soon, the investigation concentrated on "S.E.", a 20 year old Lebanese inhabitant of the hostel. Many German politicians and media, irritated by the international uproar in the wake of the tragedy, reported on the emergence of a foreign suspect with outright relief and barely hidden triumph. Yet six months later, new evidence of Nazi involvement in the arson has fuelled suspicions of political bias on the part of the prosecution authorities.


The night of the fire

The hostel, housing asylum seekers from six African and Arab countries, was situated in an isolated area of Lübeck's port zone. At midnight, S.E. and another occupant of the hostel chased away two men tampering with the car owned by S.E.'s family, parked in front of the house. At 3.25 AM, BGS police (Border Protection) patrolling the area saw sparks followed by a bang in the porch of the hostel. The fire brigade arrived on the site 15 minutes later. The police immediately started extensive interrogations of the surviving hostel occupants, many of whom were in a state of shock and despair. The occupants later bitterly complained that the police were constantly asking about disputes among the resident families and suggesting that "ethnic conflicts" inside the hostel could be the origin of the arson attack.


Young Nazis found in the immediate vicinity of the burning hostel

At 3.43 AM, a city police patrol checked a group of three young men with skinhead looks in the immediate vicinity of the hostel, but, astonishingly, let them go. The three skinheads from the East German town of Grevesmühlen were arrested later the same day, together with a fourth man from the same town. Their Nazi sympathies quickly came to light.

Official and press comments on the dreadful event and the arrest of German suspects displayed a curious mixture of sentiments: On the one hand, honest dismay, demonstrations of grief, and collective self-accusations. Speaking to thousands of mourning demonstrators, the Mayor of Lübeck, Michael Bouteiller, vehemently accused the Government of having contributed to a climate of racism and violence by its tough anti-immigration policies and demanded that all survivors of the fire, regardless their legal situation, be granted permanent residence in Germany. On the other side, awkward self-pity and irritation over an "anti-German" campaign "unjustly" affecting Germany's and Lübeck's reputation abroad. Thus, for example, the Land-Interior Minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Wienholz, lamented the "real bad luck" of Lübeck being the site of such an incident.


Arrest of foreign suspect: grief turns into relief

Such outbursts of self-pity and offended national pride quickly turned into a general sigh of outright "relief", when the four Nazis were released from detention the next day, and S.E., the young Lebanese, was arrested on suspicion of having started the fire himself. Politicians and newspaper editors throughout the country at once joined in a concert of indignation over "influential people in Germany and outside" (the words of the influential editor of the national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Reissmüller) who were jumping at every opportunity to accuse Germans of Nazism.

The four Nazis were released after presenting what the prosecutors considered a solid alibi for the time of the fire. The charge against S.E. was based on the eyewitness account of a German Red Cross rescue worker, J.L. He told the police that, on the night of the fire, the young Lebanese man had confessed to him that he had started the fire.


New evidence undermines the credibility of the prosecution's version of the events

The trustworthiness of J.L. was seriously undermined when private investigators revealed the witness's friendship with M.H., another Red Cross worker engaged in the rescue operation at the hostel. M.H., who has a history of Nazi activism, eventually proved to have urged J.L. into incriminating S.E. Doubts about the investigation grew, when it emerged that a police medical examination of the three skinheads had revealed traces of burned hair, and that the alibi of the three was not as watertight as originally claimed by the prosecutors.


International committee of experts ignored

After conducting its own investigation in Lübeck at the request of S.E.'s lawyer, an international committee of experts (including among others the Israeli-German lawyer, Felicia Langer, the British Human Rights expert and lawyer, Geoffrey Bindman, the Nazi-hunter, Beate Klarsfeld, the French lawyer and professor of law, Christian Bruschi, and the Italian expert of international and criminal law, Mario Agelelli) presented a preliminary report in late June, expressing strong criticism over the general "lack of balance and objectivity" by the prosecution authorities. In particular, the committee pointed at serious technical deficiencies in the police investigation, which, it said, resulted in the loss of crucial pieces of evidence. It also criticised the hasty release of the Nazis in spite of blatant inconsistencies in their accounts, and warned that the intended deportation of some of the former hostel residents and witnesses of the fire before the conclusion of the court case would inevitably undermine the credibility of the coming trial. Significantly, many German media barely reported the committee's conclusions and instead accused its members of bias.


New evidence leads to S.E.'s release from detention

However, a further blow to the credibility of the prosecution authorities came with the publication of a scientific report by Germany's most eminent expert on fires, Ernst Achilles. His findings on the starting place and possible causes of the fire strongly contrasted against the prosecutor's theory that the fire started in the second floor of the hostel. This question was crucial, since the charges against S.E. were essentially based on this assumption.

Meanwhile, S.E. remained imprisoned on remand, despite unanimity among all former occupants of the hostel about his innocence, and despite the prosecution's own admission of S.E.'s lack of a motive for the arson. S.E.'s conversations with visiting family members were bugged.

Only when further investigations by journalists established friendly contacts between the Red Cross rescue worker M.H., and the two car thieves chased away by S.E. less than three hours before the fire, did the Court responsible for S.E.s detention find it opportune to set him free pending the trial, despite the prosecution's continuing claims that he was still considered the main suspect.


Embarrassing questions from "outside Germany"

S.E. is no longer charged with murder, but with "arson leading to death" instead. The court has designed Ernst Achilles as its expert concerning the fire. As a result, an acquittal of S.E. is now more probable. But whatever the outcome for S.E., the handling of the case by the public prosecutors, and, in particular, their remarkable lack of initiative in searching for other possible perpetrators will continue to fuel grave doubts in many quarters about the determination of German authorities to tackle anti-foreigner violence. Commenting on the Lübeck tragedy, the Swiss conservative newspaper, Neue Zücher Zeitung, raised a number of disquieting questions: "Did the prosecution, out of misplaced zeal, engineer a wrong version of the crime? Did it overlook crucial evidence out of incompetence or ignorance? Have invaluable traces been definitively blurred? Did the strong public pressure lead to the premature charging of a suspect? Was a foreign suspect more of a relief to the German public? Will the initial suspects be interrogated again?". For the time being, all these questions remain without an answer.


Sources: Press dispatches compiled by AG für Freies Fluten, Hanau, Tel/Fax: +49/6181 184892, E-mail: AG3F@oln.comlink.apc.org; "Dir warn's", c/o Antirassistisches Telefon Hamburg, Fax: +49/40 430449; Lübecker Bündnis gegen Rassismus, c/o alternative, Willy-Brandt Allee 9, D-23544 Lübeck; Informationszentrum f. Rassismusforschung/D.I.R. e.V., Postfach 1221, D-35002 Marburg, Fax: +49/6421 61188; E-mail: dir@mailer.uni-marburg.de; Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26.7.96.