Friday's release of Christian Klar, one of Germany's last two jailed Red Army Faction (RAF) militants, has reignited a debate here over the legal system's handling of the graying, often unrepentant terrorists who traumatized Germany in the 1970s and '80s.
Memories of bombings and targeted killings conducted by the RAF – also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang – are still fresh here. The release of Mr. Klar, who has refused to apologize for his role in the deaths of nine people, including Germany's attorney general, has prompted both outrage and approval.
"It's a slap in the face for all victims," says Gabriele von Lutzau, who was a flight attendant on a plane that was hijacked three decades ago by militants affiliated with the RAF.
Others see the triumph of justice over terrorism in Klar's case. "The constitutional state has shown its strength in that it can deal with its enemies in a humane, legal way," says Heinz Schöch, a criminologist at the University of Munich School of Law.
Klar was part of a left-wing terrorism movement that erupted throughout Europe in the 1960s. The RAF, along with groups such as Action Directe in France, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Communist Combatant Cells in Belgium sought to build up an "anti-imperial European front," says Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen.
Germany, where the RAF's "armed struggle" resulted in the deaths of 34 people, is where the left's violent struggle lasted the longest – well into the 1990s – and where the degree of brutality was the greatest, says Mr. Tophoven.
Klar, the educated son of a middle-class family, had been imprisoned since 1982, following his capture and conviction on crimes ranging from murder and kidnapping to raiding a bank and attempting to assassinate a US general with an anti-tank rocket.
Klar was sentenced to five life terms in prison, but in Germany – as in most of Europe – life imprisonment rarely means life behind bars. In 1977, Germany's Supreme Court ruled that life behind bars violates a person's core human dignity, which is guaranteed by the German Constitution. Klar's release was recently approved by a Stuttgart court, which ruled that he no longer posed a danger.
Any criminal serving a life sentence deserves a second chance, provided they don't represent a threat to society, says Mr. Schöch, the criminologist. "Even the most hard-core criminals have a right to social rehabilitation."
Whether a criminal expresses remorse is irrelevant, he adds. Nonetheless, Schöch acknowledges that Klar's refusal to reveal key details on crimes poses a difficult moral problem: "Relatives of victims have a right to know who killed their loved ones."
Klar's release prompted outrage, in part because he did not repent, nor did he divulge information that could have helped solve other crimes.
Germany's blind-justice approach to dealing with the RAF militants effectively helped neutralize the group, says Gerd Könen, a historian who has written extensively about the RAF and who was part of the radical left of the 1960s.
"The state has remained a state of justice – it hasn't become a state of revenge," he says. "That's why the RAF phenomenon has been politically and judicially vanquished."
Although Germans may continue to debate the issue, Ms. Lutzau, the attendant on the hijacked flight, has found her own way to move forward: She has turned her passion for flying into art, sculpting gigantic wooden and bronze wings.
"I didn't want anybody to have any power over me anymore," she said recently in her Frankfurt gallery. "The wings give me freedom and protection."