Germany - Deplatforming

Legal Victory for Activists in Stuttgart Against Unlawful Attempts to Close Their Bank Accounts

Published on Fri May 27 2022 - modified on Tue Jul 05 2022

In a milestone ruling delivered on 26 April 2022 by the Regional Court of Stuttgart, attempts by the State Bank of Baden-Württemberg at financial deplatforming against Stuttgart Palestine Committee were found unlawful and the activists could retain access to their two bank accounts. This decision came less than one week after another legal victory for the Committee against the City of Stuttgart.

In separate incidents in 2018 and 2022, the Stuttgart Palestine Committee (Palästinakomitee Stuttgart) faced undue interferences with its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, on the basis of its support for the BDS movement.

At the beginning of 2022, the Committee faced a disinformation campaign by far-right party AfD and journalist Benjamin Weinthal from the Jerusalem Post, who pressured the State Bank of Baden-Württemberg to terminate its contracts with the Committee. The activists had opened two accounts with the Bank for the receipt of donations and membership fees and for the payment of bills for the running costs of the association.

In a letter dated 22 February 2022, the Bank declared the termination of both bank accounts as of 29 April 2022, citing its right of termination under its General Terms and Conditions of Business. The Bank’s reasons for closing the accounts were the association’s support for the BDS movement and the repeated and constant threat of reputational damage for the Bank. It referred to the German Parliament’s anti-BDS resolution and to the communications of the Commissioner of the State Government of Baden-Wuerttemberg against Anti-Semitism.

Undeterred, the activists took the bank to Court with lawyer Ahmed Abed, claiming a violation of their fundamental rights.

On 26 April 2022, the Regional Court of Stuttgart found that the Bank’s decision was unjustified and contravened its public-law mandate. It considered that:

  • The Bank could not rely on the Bundestag anti-BDS resolution, as the resolution does not have any binding force;
  • As a public-law institution, the Bank is bound to ensure respect for its customers’ fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of association as guaranteed by article 9(1) of the German Basic Law;
  • The Bank’s argument of threat of damage to its reputation does not hold ground and it must provide services to everyone equally, as long as its customers operate within the bounds of the law.

Therefore, the Committee could retain access to its two accounts.

This came after another legal success for the Committee on 21 April 2022. The Stuttgart Administrative Court ruled in its favour after it challenged the City of Stuttgart’s decision to remove the Committee’s details and access from the Municipality’s website, used to promote its activities. This incident had happened following another unfounded smear campaign launched by the Jerusalem Post against the Committee because of its support to the Palestinian-led BDS movement. The City justified its decision in Court citing the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution.

The Administrative Court also found that the anti-BDS resolution lacked any legally binding effect and that the BDS movement and its goals are protected by freedom of expression. Therefore, they must be protected from undue interference. Indeed, the BDS movement shows no tangible indications of a “targeted incitement to hatred against the Jewish population in Germany or even an incitement to hatred against this group of people“, stated the decision. It also considered that any law that would allow the City to refuse to include the Stuttgart Palestine Committee on their website would likely be unconstitutional.

At the beginning of July 2022, the City of Stuttgart complied and put back the details of the Stuttgart Palestine Committee on its website. The City also announced it will not appeal the decision of the Administrative Court. One of their spokespersons told the journalist who had initially spread smears against the Stuttgart Palestine Committee: “for purely legal reasons, we have decided not to appeal against it. Based on the current jurisprudence, as it has been elsewhere, we estimate the chances of being successful with an appeal to be very low. That is why we have put the address of the Palestine Committee back on the municipal homepage.”

The Stuttgart courts’ findings and the City’s decision are consistent with the broader trend in German case law, which upholds the right to boycott of Palestinian rights advocates for and the corollary legitimacy of BDS as a movement that does not incite hatred against the Jewish people. Both courts further entrench the principle according to which anti-BDS resolutions lack binding force and thus cannot justify infringing fundamental rights.

Nevertheless, these judgments also remind us that human rights defenders still face obstacles in the exercise of their fundamental freedoms. Indeed, they have to seek judicial remedies when anti-BDS resolutions are used to justify encroachments on their rights. In this vein, Ahmed Abed, the lawyer who defended the Stuttgart activists, is also challenging the German Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution with the Palestinian-Jewish-German team of activists BT3P. Read more about the case and support this legal battle.

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