Radical Web site wriggles out of German court net

A neo-Stalinist demagogue allied with a bunch of eco-saboteurs struck a blow for freedom of expression yesterday, scuppering the German state's latest attempt to rein in the Internet.

In a landmark decision, a court in Berlin acquitted Angela Marquardt, who had been accused of disseminating forbidden leftist propaganda. Ms Marquardt, 25, a former Deputy Chair of the Party of Democratic Socialism, had offended the authorities by providing access through her own Web site to the proscribed magazine Radikal.

The magazine, made available on the Internet, had published detailed advice on ways to block the path of trains carrying nuclear waste to the disposal site of Gorleben in northern Germany. It included tips on crippling signalling equipment and erecting barricades on the tracks.

Arguing that the group, based in the Netherlands, was endangering railway safety and the fabric of democracy, the German authorities banned Radikal. In June 1995, several hundred policemen launched simultaneous raids on left-wing activists, arresting 50 people. The magazine's office in Maastricht was also searched by Dutch and German policemen, and Internet service providers were pressured to block access to the inflammatory site, called XS4ALL.

Their tough actions lit a beacon for a motley alliance of Berlin leftists sadly lacking a cause until then. In January 1996, Ms Marquardt put the Web address of the magazine on her home page, thus providing a gateway to the forbidden propaganda.

"I want to distance myself from the attacks outlined in Radikal. But I do not accept that the discussion over this issue should be forbidden," she declared. Thus began the war on the Net.

In August 1996, prosecutors instructed the Internet Task Force in Germany to block the site. A month later, Compuserve, the provider through which Ms Marquandt operated her page, closed her down. She responded by taking her site to an unregulated part of the Net.

The state was left with no option but to charge her in October last year with abetting sedition. Meanwhile, under pressure from the authorities, several further attempts were made to block the site but all proved impossible.

Every time one page was closed down, the anarchist-minded denizens of the Web opened "mirrors" - further gateways to the magazine. Meanwhile, the authorities found themselves prosecuting a senior figure in a legal political party which enjoys up to 20 pert cent support in eastern Germany and whose MPs sit in the Bundestag.

Although the democratic motives of Ms Marquandt's party, which is funded by Communists and post-Communists of the former East Germany, are open to debate, her prosecution smacks of heavy-handedness. Her own home was alleged to have been searched by the police and she would have faced a heavy fine if she had been found guilty.

The court reached a Solomonic verdict, ruling that she might not have known what was on the site when she opened a link to it from her own Internet page. But yesterday you could still read the now world-famous magazine Radikal via the Marquandt page.