By Jonathan Moremi
The arrest in Berlin last weekend of Ahmed Mansour, famous journalist of the Qatar based Al Jazeera network, made headlines all over the world. The fact that Germany with its high reputation as a politically stable democracy acted on behalf of Egypt, a regime that is nationally and internationally accused of ignoring the rule of law, send shockwaves not only through the Arab but also the Western world. Barely three weeks after the disputed visit of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany in the eyes of the world seemed to have changed course to play the wilful executioner to Al-Sisi‘s attacks against a free press.
The criticism raised against the Chancellor, the German Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice for executing an arrest order for the high-level journalist from Qatar spun out of control within hours of the news going out. The German press accused Chancellor Merkel of collaborating with the Egyptian regime in return for the €8bn deal in favour of Germany‘s high-tech company Siemens which was signed during the presidential visit. The opposition demanded an answer, why the German government soon after the visit was willing to arrest a critical journalist that Egypt had sentenced to 15 years in absentia on grounds that sounded imaginative at best. German MP of ‘The Greens’, Franziska Brantner, labelled Egypt on German television a “torture regime” and expressed shock that her government would cooperate with such a country in silencing critical journalists. Soon the media demanded to know exactly from the German government what had caused the arrest of Mansour who had been incarcerated at the infamous prison Moabit in Berlin.
The answers from the spokespersons of Chancellor Merkel, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice were unsatisfactory to say the least when the press gathered on Monday at the routine governmental press conference. While Mansour was still in jail, the spokespersons hardly were able to answer any questions what exactly had caused the Egyptian arrest warrant from October 2014 to have been executed by the German police. The lawyers of Mansour had presented over the weekend a written confirmation from Interpol, dated also from October 2014, that the Egyptian arrest warrant did not meet the Interpol regulations and was therefore rejected. The German Ministry of Interior confirmed that Interpol twice issued Art. 3 alerts on the warrant, stating that Egypt violated Interpol‘s system for political reasons. Nevertheless the arrest warrant found its way into the German police computer database. And when the Al Jazeera journalist, after conducting a high-brow interview in Berlin with a political analyst from the renowned research institute SWP, wanted to fly back to Qatar on Saturday afternoon, the computer at passport controls flashed the red light and the police was forced to arrest Mansour.
What followed was a routine that even Mansour‘s lawyers have called ‘correct under the circumstances’. The arrested journalist was put in detention, on Sunday presented to a judge who only had to rule on the formality whether Mansour was in fact the man named in the arrest warrant and whether such a warrant did indeed exist. Everything else, according to Germany‘s extradition law IRG, another, higher court would have to check the following day – if, and only if, the Prosecutor General called upon the court to open an extradition case against the journalist.
Seeing that the Prosecutor General is a public servant and gets his orders from the Ministry of Justice, it was clear that no one else but the German government would have to declare now whether the arrest of Mansour was politically wanted or not. It was so much more astonishing that the spokespersons of the German government were unable to answer any legal question both about the case and how it would continue on Monday. The excuse given was that the arrest had happened over the weekend, although it seemed impossible, given the outcry on Sunday worldwide, that the government had seen no reason to deal with the matter as urgently as the case demanded. Even more astonishingly, barely an hour after this unsatisfactory press conference ended, the Berlin General Prosecutor issued a press release declaring the unconditional release of Ahmed Mansour citing not only legal issues with the arrest warrant but also “serious concerns from the German government with regard to political and diplomatic consequences”. How the governmental spokespersons could not know about this just an hour earlier added to eyebrow raising in this dubious affair and sparked even more suspicion that the government only back-paddled because of the reputational damage but had in fact initially collaborated with Egypt in arresting Mansour.
What really happened
On Monday late afternoon, the Ministry of Interior which executes supervisory control over the federal criminal police agency of Germany, BKA , saw itself forced to explain the chronology of what in fact had happened. According to the Ministry, Interpol had forwarded an arrest warrant by Egypt in October 2014, adding shortly after a stern warning that this warrant did not meet Interpol criteria as it was deemed to be politically motivated and therefore in violation of Art. 3 of the Interpol Constitution. Germany was warned not to execute the warrant. The BKA forwarded both the warrant and the Interpol warning to the German Foreign Office and the Federal Bureau for Law (BfJ) whose duty it is to check each such case meticulously before giving permission for it to be fed into the computer. The Foreign Office and the BfJ must either reject the request or give the go ahead for it to be typed into the police computer database. According to the Ministry of the Interior, on 27 January 2015, both governmental bodies waved the arrest through for reasons unknown. It was then entered on the same day by BKA into Germany‘s police computer. Mansour was sought in Germany as of that day on grounds of an international arrest warrant by Egypt although Interpol had warned sternly against this.
In mid-May the Egyptian government had fed another call for arrest against Mansour into the Interpol computer. Two weeks later, on 29 May, Interpol once more issued a warning to Germany regarding this arrest saying Egypt was politically abusing the Interpol system. On 2 June 2015, the German police agency BKA forwarded the new arrest call and the new Interpol warning to both the German Foreign Office and the BfJ for inspection. But nothing was done to undo the mistake of January. Three weeks later, on 21 June, Ahmed Mansour was arrested when wanting to leave Berlin to fly back to Qatar and the damage was done.
Despite the media grilling officials on the matter ever since, Germany to this day has not explained why both the Foreign Office and the BfJ ignored the stern Interpol warnings saying Egypt was abusing its system for unlawful political reasons. On Wednesday officials of the German government told journalists in Berlin that initially the officers dealing with the arrest warrant in both the Foreign Office and the BjF had “not seen the political dimension of the case”, insisting that no knowledge existed of Ahmed Mansour being a well known journalist or of the warrant being politically motivated. How this was possible given the two stern warnings by Interpol explaining just that, the German government has still not answered. The feeble explanation attempt of Foreign Office spokesperson Martin Schäfer, the German government was not legally obliged to honour the Interpol warning, hardly was satisfactory.
After insisting on answers, the Ministry of Justice revealed finally on Friday afternoon that no guidelines exist for the BfJ staff as how to conduct the pre-checks of an international arrest warrant. In a country flooded with laws and regulations this is hard to believe.
Even more so, defendants in the infamous NGO trial who were also sentenced in absentia to many years in jail have said that the German federal criminal police agency BKA had assured them in the past that nothing similar to what now happened to Ahmed Mansour was to be feared in their cases, as the Foreign Office and the BjF conducted “very thorough pre-checks” to arrest warrants by Egypt. This assurance definitely was made in serious error regarding what took place in the Mansour case. Many defendants in the NGO trial case subsequently now fear they could get arrested when travelling outside their countries.
Journalists who have been convicted in the Al Jazeera trial in absentia have now also lost confidence in the German legal system and their safety. Rena Netjes, a Dutch journalist who worked for a decade in Egypt and was then sentenced to 10 years in jail because she had had tea one afternoon with an Al Jazeera colleague – which led to the accusation she was supporting a terrorist organisation – is currently not willing to travel from the Netherlands to Germany anymore. “For me, it is too risky”, she told German television after the arrest of Ahmed Mansour. Sue Turton, a British journalist also sentenced in absentia, shares the fears. “For me the situation is very worrying, especially as Germany is such an important country in the EU. Other countries might now also ask themselves how to deal with this.”
The judiciary committee of the German parliament will deal with the arrest of Ahmed Mansour and what led to this scandal this Wednesday. The party ‘The Greens’ have demanded a discussion on the matter. As things stand, officials in Berlin are well aware that the jailing of the world famous Arabic journalist has damaged Germany‘s international reputation in unprecedented ways. Stubbornly refusing to reveal what led to both federal bodies dealing with the pre-checks to ignore two stern Interpol warnings that Egypt was abusing the computer system for political reasons will only raise more suspicion in the world that Germany‘s government has purposely aided President Al-Sisi in cracking down on critical journalists in return for the €8bn deal signed during his Berlin visit.
Still, this is only one side of the coin. While sentiments in Egyptian political circles went from ultra-high on hearing of the arrest of Ahmed Mansour to rock-bottom on learning of his unconditional release two days later, the true damage in this case was in fact inflicted on Egypt‘s ruler Al-Sisi. Not contemplating the consequences, Egypt had not only filed for Mansour to be arrested, untruthfully stating under profession: “not known” – but also insisted through its Berlin embassy during the weekend of his incarceration in Moabit that the journalist had allegedly committed even more outrageous crimes than was put down in the 15 year sentence he was given in absentia. This lead to the German government explaining publicly after his release its grave doubts regarding the credibility of Egypt‘s justice system and gave way to the international press to write once more scathing articles on Egypt‘s regime defying the rule of law, its abhorrent human rights record, the torture of political opponents and mass death sentences. In citing high-ranking German politicians from both the opposition and the government parties on how vicious Egypt was behaving against the opposition and its youth, the coverage of the arrest of Mansour led to shaming Egypt in a way that ruined everything that President Al-Sisi had tried to achieve with his Berlin visit three weeks earlier. Nothing was won in the end for Egypt, but everything lost. And on one thing the German government officials now are determined: “Organisational corrections have been taken to assure that such a mishap will not be able to happen again.”
Should Egypt therefore abuse the Interpol warrant system again on others convicted in absentia, it will fail. Which, given the damage to its reputation that has now been done, might be for the better.
Jonathan Moremi is a freelance journalist with 36 years experience reporting as a political correspondent both from Germany and the Middle East