The signs from Europe on the antiterrorism front look increasingly ominous, less because of any discernible upswing in terrorist activity than because of European governments’ attempts to criminalize opposition. First came word that the German government was investigating seventeen top journalists who had published articles about a parliamentary investigation of German involvement in CIA rendition flights to Europe. The same week saw an even more chilling development: Several urban social scientists in Berlin were secretly investigated and charged–one was imprisoned–on suspicion of terrorism. The grounds cited include the research they have done and people they may have talked to in the process.

Dr. Andrej Holm, a 36-year-old urban sociologist at Berlin’s Humboldt University, was arrested July 31. A researcher on the gentrification of Berlin, he wrote the academic volume Die Restrukturierung des Raumes (The Restructuring of Space). He was rendered by helicopter to the federal court in Karlsruhe and ordered detained under antiterrorist law on suspicion of “terrorist association.” He was held in solitary confinement in Berlin’s Moabit Prison, in his cell twenty-three hours a day, with almost no access to lawyers and little contact with family, including his three children.

The homes and workplaces of three other academics were also raided, their computers, phone books and other research materials searched and confiscated. All four have been under surveillance since September 2006, suspected of association with a “terrorist organization” referred to as a “militant group.” The raids and the detention of Holm were apparently triggered by the earlier arrests of three people alleged to have set several army trucks on fire in Brandenburg. Rather than charge these avowedly antimilitarist activists with vandalism, the German government has reached back to Section 129a of the German Penal Code to throw the antiterrorist book at them. Section 129a was established in 1976 during the state’s pursuit of the militant Baader-Meinhof Gang but lately has been dusted off for the purpose of fighting the “global war on terror” (GWOT).

Because Section 129a applies explicitly to groups and not to individuals, the authorities have gone to considerable lengths to portray Holm and his scholarly colleagues as guilty by association. Indeed, most of the charges against them focus on the actions of others. One academic, Matthias B., is accused of using “phrases and key words,” including the word “gentrification,” that echo the terminology used by the antimilitarist activists accused of arson, and further, of writing “sophisticated texts” and having access to a research library. For the federal prosecutor, this demonstrates the potential for these academics to act as intellectual leaders of the “terrorist group.” Another is accused of having met with the three alleged members of the militant group, and a third is under suspicion for having some of their phone numbers in his phone book.

Holm’s alleged crimes are that he had “close contacts” with the three charged academics and possibly others; participated in the “extreme left-wing” protest against the 2007 Heiligendamm G-8 economic summit, which the German government attempted to disrupt with pre-emptive riot-squad raids in May; and that he “intentionally” left his cellphone at home before a meeting. In a Kafkaesque touch, his lack of a cellphone–hindering the efforts of German authorities to track him–is deemed “conspiratorial behavior.” The authorities also cited Holm’s frequent use of the terms “gentrification” and “inequality” in his work as pointing to his alliance with the militant group. What’s shocking is that the German government feels empowered to invoke the content of research as evidence of terrorism. As one open letter from German and international scholars protesting the case argues, “critical research, in particular research linked with political engagement, is turned into ‘terrorism.'”

Opposition to these ludicrous charges, which reflect a certain desperation among German authorities to mount successful prosecutions in the war on terror, is building. Protests exploded almost immediately, with demonstrations in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany in August. A wide Coalition for the Immediate End to the Section 129a Proceedings has been formed, and the German Green Party has vowed to raise the issue in the Bundestag. More than 3,000 urban scholars from universities and academic organizations around the world, together with activists and organizers, have signed open letters protesting the arrests and demanding the repeal of Section 129a (see A strongly worded resolution was passed at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in New York in mid-August; a protest was lodged by the International Critical Geography Group; and another letter of protest was issued by a recent gathering of international urban scholars in Vancouver. Two Britain-based US academics have described the charges and incarcerations as “Guantánamo in Germany.” The German government initially refused to comment on the case, but there is some sign that the international protests are having an effect. After more than three weeks in jail, Holm was released on bail, and the federal court, clearly skeptical of the grounds for terrorism charges, rejected at least temporarily the prosecutor’s attempts to return him to jail. Still, all the charges remain in place against the seven accused.

If this case is any guide, Section 129a effectively establishes guilt by association. It is a gift from the past to an increasingly intolerant German state. But Germany is hardly alone. The United States has recently seen multiple prosecutions of nonviolent activists and assorted innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the British government recently threatened to use antiterrorist legislation against Heathrow climate change activists. In these cases, the threat of “terrorism” is invoked to justify a crackdown on legitimate opposition to government policies. How else are we to interpret secret police snarling about the word “gentrification”? The disturbing precedent emerging from Germany is that people’s writings, research and scholarly work–not to mention their cellphone abstinence–can and will be used as evidence against them. If the German state gets away with it, an international precedent will have been set, and a new chill will be felt by dissenters the world over.