German-Palestinian academic at centre of smear campaign wins crucial legal victory

Younes was disinvited from a 2019 anti-racism panel discussion after organisers received the secret dossier (ELSC)

Dania Akkad

Middle East Eye  /  May 17, 2022

A German court has ordered a state-funded body to release a secret dossier that saw Anna-Esther Younes disinvited from anti-racism event, but her lawyers say their fight isn’t over.

A German court has ordered a state-funded body to release any data it has collected about a German-Palestinian academic who was disinvited from a 2019 speaking engagement after a secret dossier compiled about her was shared with organizers. 

The decision has been welcome by supporters of Anna-Esther Younes who say the collection and compilation of her data amounted to surveillance, and that her case is the first step in finding out whether others have their own files.

The Society for a Democratic Culture in Berlin (VDK) was also told it must disclose to Younes why her data was processed and with whom it was shared, according to a 6 May judgement by the Berlin District Court. 

VDK oversees two projects – RIAS Berlin and MBR – which compiled the document that painted Younes as antisemitic and a terrorist sympathizer, and shared it with the head of German’s far-left party, Die Linke, in Berlin.

Soon after, Younes was told her participation in a Die Linke-organized discussion about strategies against right-wing extremism was no longer welcome.

Younes, who has been attempting for the past two years to get answers about the dossier, told Middle East Eye that it was “a shame” that she had to file a lawsuit to have her rights recognized.

“At least it has now been confirmed by the court,” she said in a statement. “But I would like to stress again that RIAS/MBR denied me my right to information for more than two years – 26 months in total.”

RIAS Berlin and MBR, she said, have now given her access to the dossier that she and her lawyers already knew existed, but she stressed that it may be only some of the data that they have on her.

“That means we will continue with our case from here and take it to the next level. It’s not over yet. We are trying to set a precedent here for something that has been going on way too long.”

VDK did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

In addition to the court’s decision, Berlin’s Data Protection Authority has also sent VDK a warning over the way MBR and RIAS Berlin processed Younes’ information and is expected to make a final decision over the organization’s conduct this month.

‘Not an isolated case’

Younes’ case, say her lawyers, is just one example of the repressive atmosphere in Germany in recent years for those who support Palestinians, particularly so since the 2019 passage of a Bundestag resolution condemning the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

There are broader concerns that the same projects may have compiled dossiers about other Palestinian supporters, including at least four who have also requested their data from RIAS Berlin and MBR.

Since the court’s judgement, say her lawyers, RIAS Berlin and MBR have disclosed that they collected data focused on Younes’ positions on Israel and the BDS movement.

They believe the organizations focused on this as a result of their use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, a controversial benchmark that critics say conflates Judaism with Zionism thereby curtailing criticism of Israel.

So the judgement, said Giovanni Fassina, the director of the Amsterdam-based European Legal Support Center (ELSC) which is assisting Younes with her legal action, is only a start.

“This is an important victory because organizations using the IHRA definition for the surveillance of Palestinian rights advocates will be required to provide access to the information they collect on individuals,” Fassina said. 

“We believe this is not an isolated case and that there is a structural issue of profiling Palestinians and Palestinian rights advocates in Germany. This is what we intend to challenge further in court because it has a dangerous potential to create a chilling effect and limit democratic participation in public debate.”

Younes and her lawyers filed the civil suit last month after waiting nearly two years for Berlin’s Data Protection Authority to process a complaint she filed against MBR and RIAS Berlin in May 2020.

When MEE asked Berlin DPA last month to explain why Younes’ case had not yet been processed, a spokesperson said on 19 April that the Covid pandemic and high workload had left the organization unable to process all cases within the scheduled time.

In a 26 April letter to Younes, Berlin DPA said its complaint had not been processed “due to a bureau oversight”. 

MEE has asked Berlin DPA to clarify what “bureau oversight” means, but had not heard back by the time of publication.

Younes and her lawyer say they plan to request damages from RIAS Berlin and MBR for preventing her from accessing her information for over two years in the next court hearing which has not yet been scheduled.

Dania Akkad is a senior investigations editor, focused on human rights, energy and technology