Does the judiciary judge climate activists too laxly? And why is the fight against criminal clans so unsuccessful? Chief Public Prosecutor Ralph Knispel on the limits of the rule of law.
Surprisingly cheerful, this man. In his dreary office, the heating is turned down, the IT equipment of the judiciary is a joke, the clans go about their criminal business, the last generation is constantly stuck on the streets, and his everyday work consists of abuse and murder even shortly before Christmas… But Chief Public Prosecutor Ralph Knispel seems so tidy that Berlin is more of a Ponyhof than an overwhelmed crime capital. The 62-year-old heads the capital crimes department in the criminal court. Every murder goes over his table, 100 homicides in 2021 alone. He can “switch off well,” says Knispel. Because he believes in the inviolability of the law. Because what he’s doing is right. With coffee from a paper cup, he gives an insight into the difficult relationship between morality, politics and law.
FOCUS: Have you ever been stuck in traffic because of the so-called climate stickers?
Ralph Knispel: No, so far I’ve been able to avoid them. Yet, tragically, I was directly confronted with it. I passed the scene of an accident: a few moments earlier, a cement mixer had run over a cyclist. The sight was shocking. A police officer stroked the woman’s arm, and my first thought was: trapped under a concrete mixer, it won’t end well. Afterwards I found out that an important rescue vehicle was stuck in a traffic jam because so-called climate activists – as these criminals are often called – had glued themselves to masts on the motorway.
The woman died. It would probably have been too late anyway. A tragic case…
Knispel: … just a moment. According to the Berlin Senate, more than 18 rescue vehicles have been delayed in recent weeks due to the actions of so-called climate activists. In addition to the legal one, a socio-political discussion should urgently start here.
Can’t you understand the concerns of the climate stickers?
Knispel: That is not the question. I don’t want to judge the concerns of the demonstrators, whether it’s Fridays for Future or the so-called last generation. 86 percent of the population find the actions of the last generation wrong. On the other hand, 57 percent of people do not go far enough or fast enough to protect the climate. In principle, the commitment to the environment is to be welcomed. But I look at the issue legally.
Knispel: For us lawyers and criminal prosecutors there are no climate activists, but we are dealing with suspects of a crime, i.e. with accused people. If you get stuck on the road, you force other road users. Those who resist police officers who want to take them off the street may be resisting law enforcement officials. I think the glorified rhetoric of climate activists and their supporters is misguided. We have to straighten out the terminology again. As a public prosecutor, I am not interested in long-term goals, I only judge the question of whether someone is complying with the applicable laws.
The activists claim to draw attention to blatant abuses in the interests of their children and grandchildren…
Knispel: I cannot follow this line of argument. Admittedly, we lawyers have the opportunity to respond to inner attitudes when assessing sentences. But anyone who thinks they can break the law and coerce other people because they claim morally superior rights for themselves is outside our laws. And as a public prosecutor, I am shocked by how some leave the room immediately after a conviction and announce that they want to commit the same crime again.
Insight and remorse play a role in sentencing. Can this principle even apply to morally justified deeds?
Knispel: We have clear criteria: the judiciary is called upon to react appropriately to suspects who already have a relevant criminal record or who have become conspicuous because of other offences. Then she has to pronounce penalties to a degree that is understandable for the law-abiding population.
Is the impression that courts tend to be lenient with climate activists misleading?
Knispel: Some fines actually seem incomprehensible to the population. That’s correct. This is where my colleagues come into play: because the public prosecutor’s office is also entitled to appeal. In the appropriate cases, I expect that she will appeal to obtain harsher penalties if necessary. Only: It takes work and takes time. A decision may then only be made at a point in time when the last generation thinks that we have already perished.
Isn’t this the core dilemma? The activists accept penalties in order to hold up a mirror to society: We point out the climate catastrophe, you have nothing better to do than lock us away…
Knispel: We must not give in to the illusion that we can reach each of these people with criminal justice. There are criminals who like to make themselves martyrs. Of course, we have the right to influence the accused in such a way that they no longer commit criminal offenses in the future. But punishment must also ensure that guilt is settled and have a general preventive effect, i.e. deter others from committing crimes. The state must always signal that it is not willing to accept violations of the law.
Aren’t 30 days of compulsory detention too long for an act that was merely announced?
First of all, it should be noted that this is not a case of compulsory but preventive detention, which is also intended to prevent the probable commission of criminal offenses. Since such a measure does not fall within the scope of criminal prosecution, the public prosecutor’s office is left out. For this reason alone I will not take part in the discussion about the possible duration of 30 days in Bavaria, but I would like to point out that the prevention of clearly imminent criminal offenses meets with broad approval – not only among criminal prosecutors.
And if it doesn’t impress the convicts…
Knispel: …then we have to accept it, but still react. We know such behavior from history. The Red Army Faction – and I’ll say quite clearly that the demonstrators are neither a criminal nor a terrorist organization – always claimed, regardless of judgment, that they were the better people and pursued a superior attitude. You won’t be able to prevent that with penalties, we have a socio-political role to play here.
The discussion is on.
Knispel: Yes, but I can only say again, I don’t like the diction. The judiciary does not condemn climate activists, nor does it condemn an attitude. She’s not entitled to that. It has to sanction crimes, regardless of their political orientation. It doesn’t matter whether they are lateral thinkers, corona deniers or the so-called climate activists.
In practice, is it really that easy to make a difference?
Knispel: It has to. One can gladly endorse the goals of the demonstrators. You will find many supporters there, also across the judiciary. But it must not lead to uncertainty among the population, who are allowed to believe in the inviolability of the law. That would weaken the rule of law even further, and we would lose even more people to the political fringes. Regardless of whether to the right or left. That’s why there shouldn’t be any justice based on people’s convictions. According to the motto: We think climate fighters are good, lateral thinkers not. That cannot and must not be a standard for us, but we have to follow the law and order.
Dare to make a prediction: will you still be busy with climate activists in a year or two?
Knispel: I would just dare – not least because of my advanced age and my life experience – to predict that sooner or later this movement will also come to an end and be replaced by another. Then the judiciary can take care of the clan crime again. She seems rather helpless anyway.
The deported intensive offender Abdallah Abou-Chaker is showing off posts from a five-star hotel. Don’t rule-of-law measures degenerate into a laughing stock?
Knispel: First of all, basically: A deportation shocks the person concerned – no matter how strong he may be. Nevertheless, I understand the objections. But honestly, what alternative do we have? The question drives me: Do we really want to tolerate such a person in Germany? It’s small steps. But they are also worthy of recognition. There were times when we only deported five convicted prisoners in Berlin in a whole year. Five! That has changed. And believe me, deportation is a deterrent. Many come to countries they don’t even know, where they feel foreign.
And then they come back purified after two years?
Knispel: First of all, there are signs that we have to set. But of course there are criminals who are just as unimpressed by the “deportation” sword of Damocles as they are by imprisonment.
A mother of a clan member said of her son’s prison sentence: Prison makes a man out of him. Sounds more like an award than a punishment.
It is often forgotten that the penal system also serves to rehabilitate people. Although the question arises for many of these people: Were they ever socialized in our sense? There aren’t many. And of course we must have no illusions. If we lock up members of the Arab extended families, deport them or confiscate their assets, then it rings with them. But to expect that the criminals would suddenly sit down and write applications and then go to work from six in the morning for 1,600 euros net per month – no, that won’t work.
Does that mean the judiciary can give up right away?
Knispel: Fighting the clans is like running a marathon. We’ve just started. The criminals have a huge advantage. A 100-meter intermediate sprint doesn’t help. It’s a long journey with many hurdles. But we have to keep walking. That means keeping up the pursuit pressure. We can’t prevent all crime, but we can curb it. This also includes permanent controls in the environment.
Representatives of the left speak of general suspicion against Arab extended families. How many conspicuous family members are we actually talking about?
Knispel: The assertion of a general suspicion, which is constantly repeated in certain political and social circles, cannot replace facts. Neither the police nor the judiciary harbor such general suspicion. We are guided by facts and crime statistics. According to our findings, there are 18 to 20 extended Arab families in Berlin, each with 50 to 500 members. Of course, not every family member is a criminal. On the other hand, we all have to take note that according to the situation report on organized crime in 2021 compared to the previous year, the number of investigations increased by over 17 percent and the number of suspects by almost 15 percent. And the sum of the economic damage has exceeded the two billion euro mark for the first time. And it is well known that members of extended Arab or Turkish families were also involved in these crimes. Do we seriously want to talk about general suspicion?
In which areas of crime are you primarily active?
Knispel: The fields of activity of criminals have adapted to social conditions. Of course, they are still active in the red light and narcotics area, but there are increasing numbers in cybercrime as well as in extensive fraud such as corona aid. In a nutshell: organized crime is active wherever it is possible to earn a lot of money in a punishable manner.
As soon as the judiciary investigates, witnesses for the prosecution seem to be affected by amnesia. Even the threat of punishment does not help the memory on the jumps. Can the rule of law no longer protect witnesses?
Knispel: Of course there are ways to protect witnesses. This starts with simple police instructions such as “Don’t answer the door right away” or “Don’t answer the phone right away”, “Choose a different way to work every day”. But let’s face it, we won’t be able to offer the Witnesses the protection they expect and often need.
Is that what you call a declaration of bankruptcy?
Knispel: No, but you have to face reality. Certainly there are programs to shield witnesses as much as possible. Do you know what that means, especially in these widely ramified family and celebrity relationships? You have to take people completely out of their living environment: to another city, another job. And not just with your life partner and children. Relatives also need security, even those abroad. Because the threat does not end in Berlin-Neukölln, it also extends to Turkey or Lebanon. The effort is enormous, both in terms of personnel and finances – and no one knows how long the measures will then have to take.
Have you ever been affected by such protective measures?
Knispel: Yes, several times.
Knispel: Oh, there was a hint that I was going to be shot at, and in another case on the politically left-wing portal “Indymedia” there was a call to shoot me.
Were you scared?
Crisp: No. I don’t know fear. That would be a bad companion in my job.
But don’t tell me that being under police protection isn’t a burden.
Knispel: Why burden? Not that bad, they were all nice colleagues. And the neighbors were happy and felt a lot safer because of the stripes in front of the door.
As safe as on Bavaria’s roads?
Knispel: Haha, I know what you’re getting at… on the impression that the judiciary and police in the Free State lock up criminals and the Berliners let them go. The impression is not correct. It’s a little more complicated. Of course there is a north-south divide. However, a lot also has structural causes. The clearance rates alone speak volumes. In Berlin we improved recently. To around 45 percent. In Bavaria we are at over 69 percent. It probably won’t be religious because there are so many Catholics there. Nor will it be genetic.
What is it then?
Knispel: That is a question of the position of those in government: How do I deal with law enforcement agencies? What is the position of the police in politics and in society? You will find out that the standing of a Bavarian civil servant is different from that of a colleague in Berlin. Of course, a prison officer can also be attacked in Munich. Only the reaction to this is completely different in the south. There, the uniformed forces are shown more respect. From society and – it seems to me – often from politics as well. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything, but sometimes I have the feeling that Bavaria is a bit of an island of bliss.
Translated, does that mean: under the CSU there is law and order and the left-wing government in Berlin can’t manage it?
Knispel: Let’s put it this way: There are clear differences in the way police work is viewed. It’s no secret that there are extremely police-critical tones in the current Berlin government. And when a member of a government faction describes the trade law reviews in the clan milieu as discriminatory, the police and regulatory authorities are very surprised – because it is simply not true.
Imagine you are the governing mayor of Berlin. What would you change immediately?
Knispel: Then I dream: I would equip the judiciary, internal affairs and police in such a way that they are able to fulfill their tasks in terms of personnel, finances and material.
Sounds like the usual whining for more money.
Knispel: But it can’t be the case that, because of the blatant shortage of police personnel in Berlin, officers from the homicide squad have to go along with central property security to check whether everything is in order in front of embassies, for example. It is unacceptable for investigators to cycle to the scene. That we have to wait months or even years for the analysis of DNA traces. Nor can it be that we move court hearings to theaters and cultural halls. There are then proceedings against organized crime because there are not enough courtrooms.
Knispel: No joke! The throttled heating in the courthouse is no longer significant. Or that every two weeks on Wednesdays the IT system has to be switched off from 5 p.m. until the next morning. Technically, nothing works in the Berlin judicial system. Absolutely nothing more. Imagine companies like Siemens, Lufthansa or Allianz being completely paralyzed for hours every two weeks. Inconceivably!
That sounds like miserable working conditions.
Knispel: That’s what it’s all about. And if we don’t take countermeasures, the judiciary will face an oath of disclosure.
Is there anything that gives you hope?
Knispel: The commitment and commitment of many colleagues, especially the younger ones, gives me hope. Despite the difficulties, they are all still carried by the conviction that they are doing what is right and important for the rule of law.