Arid Uka, the 22-year-old Kosovo native who shot and killed two American airmen at the Frankfurt airport in March of last year, was sentenced to life in prison by a German court on Friday. Despite the terminology, however, a “life” sentence in Germany does not in fact mean life, and Uka could be set free as early as 2028.

By German law, all persons convicted of crimes, no matter the gravity, must be given the possibility of parole. The granting of parole is the norm. As reported by the German news weekly Focus, a 2008 study found that persons sentenced to “life” in prison in Germany in fact served on average eighteen years.

Under normal circumstances, per §57a of the German penal code, persons sentenced to “life” are eligible for parole after fifteen years in prison. Only if the crime is judged to have been particularly grave – or rather, per the formulation in German law, if the guilt is judged to be “particularly grave” – is the guilty party not eligible for parole once fifteen years have been served. The Frankfurt court that sentenced Arid Uka found that his guilt was “particularly grave.”

This does not mean, however, that Uka will not be eligible for parole at a later date or even that he will serve much more than fifteen years. A convict who has been denied parole may apply again after two years. Since, moreover, time spent in custody prior to conviction is counted among the relevant jail time, this means that Arid Uka could be released as early as 2028. Uka was taken into custody immediately following his attack on the American airmen in March 2011. In 2028, Arid Uka will be thirty-eight years old.

There is, moreover, an important precedent to the Uka case that suggests that Uka can expect an early release. In 1996, Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist Birgit Hogefeld was found guilty by a German court in Frankfurt of the murder of American serviceman Edward Pimental. On the evening of August 7, 1985, Pimental had been lured from a bar in Wiesbaden by Hogefeld. His dead body was found the next day. He had been shot in the back of the head.

On August 8, 1985, the same day that Pimental’s body was found, RAF terrorists parked a car laden with explosives at the U.S. Air Force’s Rhein-Main Air Base, adjacent to the Frankfurt airport. The perpetrators had used Pimental’s identity card to gain access to the base. Another U.S. serviceman, Frank H. Scarton, and an American civilian, Becky Jo Bristol, were killed in the ensuing explosion. Hogefeld likewise received a life sentence for her involvement in the Rhein-Main Air Base bombing. The Frankfurt court found, moreover, that Hogefeld’s guilt was “particularly grave.”

On June 11 of last year, the same Frankfurt court granted Hogefeld parole. As noted in the court press release, Birgit Hogefeld served altogether eighteen years in prison. The court in question, incidentally, is the same court that tried and sentenced Arid Uka.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at or on Facebook.

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