Amid festering resentment over illegal US spying on its allies in Europe, criminal charges pressed on Monday by hackers and civil rights groups have given the affair an unexpected turn.
The Chaos Computer Club (CCC) along with the International League for Human Rights and the civil rights group Digitalcourage have pressed charges against American, British and German intelligence officers as well as their superiors, the chancellor and the German minister of the interior, for taking part in forbidden intelligence operations and aiding and abetting these activities.
Now that there is "certainty that German and other countries' secret services have violated the German criminal law," the CCC said in a press release on Monday, "we hope to finally initiate investigations by the Federal Prosecutor General against the German government".
The complaint, filed with Germany's Federal Prosecutor General, is directed at the federal government and the presidents of the intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst), the Military Counter-Intelligence Service and the domestic intelligence service (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz).
The groups are accusing them of "violation of the right to privacy and obstruction of justice in office by bearing and cooperating with the electronic surveillance of German citizens by NSA and GCHQ," the statement said.
"It is incomprehensible that the Federal Prosecutor has not yet taken action and why effective policy measures have not been implemented," said "padeluun", a well-known digital rights activist and one of the chairmen at Digitalcourage regarding the allegations.
"If officials are scared to act, we must invoke our rights guaranteed by the State and sue," he said.
Merkel also accused of 'aiding' illegal spying
Responding to the charges, Chancellor Merkel's spokesperson Steffen Seibert said he currently had no position on the matter. "Anyone in Germany can file a complaint," he said in Berlin on Monday.
Surprisingly, the allegations are also directed at the chancellor, in the wake of documents released by Edward Snowden revealing that her mobile phone had been intercepted by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
"Every German citizen has been affected by the massive surveillance of his or her communication data," said Julius Mittenzwei, a lawyer and long-time member of the CCC.
"Our laws protect us and threaten anyone responsible for such surveillance with punishment," he said, adding: "Consequently, an investigation by the Federal Prosecutor General is necessary and mandatory by law.”
According to its press release, the CCC is convinced that those responsible in the intelligence agencies and in the German government not only tolerated the forbidden spying activities but "aided and abetted the commission of these crimes."
Mittenzwei said he regretted the fact that those responsible and the circumstances of their crimes were not identified much earlier.
Similar complaints filed across Europe
The criminal complaint in Germany runs parallel to similar allegations in France and Belgium, also initiated by the International League for Human Rights. In this way, the groups hope these fundamental rights violations will be dealt with according to individual legal frameworks in each of the states involved.
Filing with the Federal Prosecutor is only the first step in a legal process that could take years. But if the charges are dismissed, the groups said their complaints will be collectively brought before the European Court of Human Rights as a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The organisations have also called for Snowden to come to Germany as an expert witness in the espionage investigations. However, this would only occur if he were "provided safe passage and protection against extradition to the US", the statement said.