By Riham Alkousaa and Juliette Jabkhiro
BERLIN (Reuters) – Simon Lachner had plans to glue himself to a German city thoroughfare in June to call public attention to climate change. Instead, he ended up in police custody before he’d even left his home.
Lachner, 28, is one of thousands of activists caught up in a European crackdown on a wave of direct action protests that gathered pace last year demanding urgent government action against climate change.
Roadblocks on major motorways in Britain have caused traffic chaos, protests at oil installations in Germany have disrupted supplies, and in France, thousands of activists and police clashed over water usage, leaving dozens injured.
Determined to prevent such protests from strengthening further, states in Germany and national authorities in France are invoking legal powers often used against organised crime and extremist groups to wiretap and track activists, Reuters found, based on conversations with four prosecutors, police in both countries and more than a dozen protesters.
In Berlin alone, police have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working on more than 4,500 incidents registered against the “The Last Generation” and “Extinction Rebellion” groups, according to previously unreported data from police.
State authorities in Germany are widely using preventative detention to stop people from protesting, including holding at least one person for as long as 30 days without charge, which is permissible under Bavarian law, the prosecutors consulted by Reuters said.
Lawmakers passed new surveillance and detention laws in France in July and in Britain in May, with Britain making it illegal to lock, or glue, yourself to property.
France has used an anti-terrorism unit to question some climate activists, the police confirmed to Reuters.
The governments in Germany and Britain said the response to the protests was aimed at preventing damaging criminal actions. The French government declined to comment but has previously said the state must be able to combat what it calls “radicalisation”.
Activists say they turned to direct action after the failure of other protest strategies. Civil disobedience has a long history in social movements, including in the fight for the vote for women and the U.S. civil rights movement.
Reuters could not establish whether European countries were coordinating policies or vigilance of the protesters, beyond normal cooperation between police forces.
A French government source with knowledge of the matter said intelligence services across Europe cooperated to monitor protesters’ plans and activities.
Responding to a Reuters question about sharing intelligence about climate activists between European governments, Germany’s interior ministry said it held regular information exchanges with foreign partners, but declined to give details. The police and French interior ministry declined to comment. Britain’s National Police Chiefs’ Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment and its interior ministry did not comment.
Germany does not have a national policy targeting climate activists, who the government considers mainly non-extremist, a spokesperson for the country’s interior ministry said.
However, two of Germany’s states are considering whether to outlaw a prominent group in the movement.
THE LAST GENERATION
Lachner is a member of The Last Generation, a Germany-based group within the Europe-wide A22 network that also includes Britain’s Just Stop Oil and is financed by the Los Angeles-based Climate Emergency Fund.
Bavaria’s prosecutor has led a clampdown on The Last Generation, along with an investigation into whether to classify it as a criminal organization under a law that allows widespread telephone surveillance, GPS tracking and property searches.
The prosecutor assigned the investigation of The Last Generation to a unit in the state that combats terrorism and extremism because it said the group committed crimes including attempting to sabotage critical infrastructure, a spokesperson for the prosecutor said.
Brandenburg has a similar investigation, its interior ministry told Reuters.
In response to a question from Reuters, The Last Generation denied its activities were criminal, and said activists show their faces and names during protests and announce events in advance.
Prosecutors are investigating the group for closing a valve on the Transalpine Pipeline in Bavaria last year and a protest at a refinery in Brandenburg. The Last Generation confirmed it took part in those protests.
In May, police in several states raided homes of seven leaders of The Last Generation. Bavarian prosecutors intercepted the phones of six of the leaders before the raids, part of the investigation into classifying the group as a criminal organisation, the Bavarian prosecutors’ office told Reuters.
The group’s website was also shut down to stop fundraising. If outlawed, supporting the group would be punishable with jail time, under German law.
In June, on the day of Lachner’s planned protest in the Bavarian city of Regensberg, police showed up at his house and took him to a police station for six hours, an example of Bavaria’s use of rules that allow police to detain individuals for up to a month without charge to prevent a crime, on the basis of a court order.
“I wasn’t allowed to get my shoes or socks … they just dragged me out of the hallway,” Lachner said in an interview. Video of the detention posted by The Last Generation on the social media platform X shows him being pulled barefoot over a paved drive. Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
Regensberg police said they took Lachner in to prevent a criminal offence after he announced his plans publicly.
Bavaria has used preventative custody of longer than 24 hours at least 80 times against climate activists over the past 18 months, the state interior ministry told Reuters, under a state law that permits such actions. The ministry confirmed holding one activist for 30 days. The Last Generation said nine people had been held for 30 days.
The ministry did not give details of the people detained or why they were held. Reuters could not immediately establish whether any of the activists held were subsequently charged.
Activists have staged hundreds of road blocks since last year in Berlin. As of July 6, Berlin police had spent more than 480,000 hours working on some 4,519 newly registered alleged criminal incidents by environmental activists, the police department told Reuters.
Berlin’s prosecutor said in a reply to questions from Reuters it had recorded more than 2,200 investigations by June 19 this year into activists from The Last Generation and Extinction Rebellion. The data did not detail the types of offences it was investigating.
In response to the wave of protests, Berlin’s state lawmakers are now drafting legislation to allow suspects to be held for five days, up from the current 48 hours, a spokesperson for Berlin senate said in an interview.
Despite Lachner’s detention, the action in Regensberg went ahead, with more protesters gluing themselves to the road than initially planned.
“Climate protesters can perhaps be locked away, but the climate catastrophe will come anyway,” Lachner said after being convicted in Berlin in July for glueing incidents last year and fined 2,700 euros. He has appealed the sentence and said he would carry on with the protests.
Germany aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, and France in 2050, in line with scientific guidance. But both countries have missed their annual targets for the last two years, and with the planet recording the hottest ever days in July, the activists say more needs to be done.
Late in 2022, climate activists dressed in white hazmat-style suits, entered a French cement factory owned by Lafarge Holcim at night, chopping power connections with bolt cutters and smashing installations with hammers, according to a video released by a network called Les Soulevements de La Terre (SLT).
A spokesperson said SLT supported the action but did not organise it, adding that the people arrested since were innocent until proven guilty.
In March, SLT members joined a protest that aimed to disable under-construction irrigation reservoirs that will pump groundwater for large farms in a drought-hit wetland in Deux-Sevres in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region.
An estimated 6,000 protesters were met by 3,000 gendarme anti-riot forces who fired more than 5,000 tear gas shells in the space of two hours. In the chaos, 200 protesters were injured, with two left in a coma and one losing an eye. Forty-seven officers were injured, and 4 of their vehicles burnt.
The violence of the water protest caused uproar, with rights groups and protesters saying security forces used excessive violence, and the government accusing the activists of coming armed with steel bowling balls and petrol bombs ready for a fight. Military prosecutors are investigating whether undue force was used by the gendarmes.
Under a law passed in 2021, the interior ministry has since banned SLT for allegedly provoking violence. SLT has appealed the ban.
The interior ministry and police declined to comment for this story.
Wetlands conservationist Julien Le Guet, an organiser of the reservoir protest who is not a member of SLT, was put under police surveillance by the government before the March protest, the local office of the interior ministry told a French newspaper in January, saying the surveillance was ordered under rules to prevent “collective violence that could seriously jeopardise public peace”.
That process is overseen by the National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques, and surveillance in such cases must be authorised by the prime minister on a case-by-case basis, the commission told Reuters.
The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview, Le Guet said the surveillance included a GPS tracking device attached beneath his car, and a camera placed to watch his father’s house. In the January newspaper interview, the local office of the interior ministry confirmed both devices had been installed.
Le Guet and six others are due in court in September to face charges of organising protests forbidden by the local interior ministry office, including the March protest. Le Guet said direct action was justified because other forms of protest had not succeeded.
Two French security sources told Reuters there had been an increase in eco-activists under surveillance since 2018, without giving details. The police and interior ministry declined to comment.
At an administrative court hearing on Tuesday in which SLT was arguing for a suspension of the government decree shutting the group down, the legal representative for the interior ministry acknowledged government surveillance measures against members of the group.
“People who have claimed to be part of SLT have ipso facto fallen into the scope of the intelligence services,” said Pascale Leglise, adding that “of course not every person is subject to a surveillance technique”.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa in Berlin and Juliette Jabkhiro in Paris; Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill and William James in London; Editing by Katy Daigle and Frank Jack Daniel)