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Under pressure

February 9, 2012

Two alleged Syrian spies have been arrested for spying on Syrian dissidents in Germany. The intelligence agencies say that such spying is by no means rare but they do what they can to protect them.

ARCHIV - Ein Polizist steht am 28.12.2011 in Berlin vor der syrischen Botschaft. Am Dienstag (07.2.2012)teilte die Bundesanwaltschaft in Karlsruhe mit, das in Berlin zwei mutmaßliche Spione aus dem Libanon und Syrien festgenommen wurden. Sie würden verdächtigt, für einen syrischen Geheimdienst in Deutschland lebende Oppositionelle beobachtet und ausgeforscht zu haben. Foto: Maurizio Gambarini dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There was a knock on Ferhad Ahma's door in the middle of the night. Ahma comes from Syria, but he's now a local politician in Berlin, and he was awake at the time. Naturally, he asks who's there. "Police," comes the answer. He opens the door - two masked men storm in and start beating him with batons for minutes on end. They don't say a word. A neighbor hears his screams - and the attackers flee as he arrives in the flat.

That was back in December, but the security services are still investigating the incident. Ahma believes that his attackers were with the Syrian secret service, which is alleged to spy on supporters of the opposition in Germany and put pressure on them. Ever since the unrest began in Syria, Ferhad Ahma has been supporting the opposition as a member of the Syrian National Council. It would appear that he's not a unique case.

Ferhad Ahma, Mitglied des syrischen Nationalrates. Rechte: DW/ Ahmad Hissou Datum: 19.12.201.
Ferhad Ahma believes the attackers were with the Syrian secret serviceImage: DW

For months now, the Berlin state domestic intelligence agency has been keeping an eye on a number of people connected to the Syrian embassy who are considered suspicious. What they found out was evidently so serious that on Tuesday an operation took place in which more than 70 police officers searched several apartments and arrested two people who were suspected of having worked for the Syrian secret service.

Foreign secret services active in Germany

fenster; rolladen; jalousie; mensch; person; durchkucken; durch; schauen; fernglas; beobachten; fern; nachbarn; spionage; spion; detektiv; neugier
Foreign intelligence agencies actively observe dissidents living in GermanyImage: Fotolia/Dron

According to the information held by the German security services, political or religious dissidents who have come to Germany from certain countries may well find themselves under observation by the secret services of their countries of origin. But is it likely that they will actually be physically attacked while they are in Germany?  The German security services say they have no information on that.

But accusations about the Iranian and the Turkish secret services have come to their attention. Turkish agents, for example, are said to have spied on supporters of the terrorist Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK, in Germany. Turkish Kurds who were traveling to Turkey would find that their passports would not be extended, or they would be stopped from leaving the country. Those who had applied for political asylum in Germany are said to have been threatened with problems for their families back home.

The exiled Syrian Sondos Sulaiman described her experiences to Amnesty International. She said the local security police put her under pressure by making repeated visits to her family in Hama and Damascus. Sulaiman's family was interrogated about her activities in Germany; her brother was threatened with imprisonment if he refused to put pressure on Sulaiman to stop her activities against the Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad. According to the International Society of Human Rights in Berlin, Egyptian refugees who have converted from Islam to Christianity have also been threatened.

Germanytries to protect dissidents

There isn't any special program to protect supporters of opposition groups or politically persecuted immigrants in Germany. But the constitution and the criminal code apply to every person who finds themselves on German soil. Even if no decision has yet been reached on asylum status, a refugee does not live outside the protection of the law. The police are obliged to investigate any kind of threat; there's no need for violence actually to have taken place. Even a verbal threat is a crime in Germany and must be prosecuted by police.

In cases where dissidents' families are threatened in their home countries, the police try to pass this information on to the political level. The foreign ministry and the foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, have made it very clear that there will be no tolerance of threats or attacks on dissidents in Germany. "That applies to everyone, whatever country they come from," says the ministry. Across party lines, members of the Bundestag ensure that those belonging to certain nationalities are given special consideration: for example, an agreement with Syria under which the country takes back rejected asylum seekers has been suspended, so that no Syrian refugees need to fear being deported, even if their application for asylum is refused. 

But the domestic intelligence agencies in Germany can do little against threats to members of political opposition groups. Under the law, the agencies observe the activities of foreign secret services operating in Germany. But there has to be concrete evidence of a crime, or clear danger to life and limb, before the police and prosecutor are informed. Only they - and not the intelligence agencies - are allowed to take action against suspects. That means that it all depends on good communications between the intelligence agencies and the police. In the case of the Syrian dissidents who thought they were being spied on, that seems to have worked well.  But they had drawn attention to themselves by publishing a website on which they listed everyone who believed they were being persecuted by the Syrian secret service.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / mll
Editor: Spencer Kimball