A 54-year-old man has become an unlikely cause celebre in Germany after he was jailed for six months for refusing to pay the country’s television license fee.
Georg Thiel has spent the last 113 days in an 86 square foot cell with a toilet in the corner. He is allowed to walk in the prison courtyard once a day.
Yet he has not been convicted of any crime. He is being held under the German equivalent of a bailiff’s warrant because refuses to pay the license fee.
Under the archaic law, he can be held in prison for up to six months unless he either pays the debt or provides details of his assets.
But because he has not committed any crime, the German public broadcaster WDR must pay the cost of his incarceration, which is already over €14,000 (£12,000).
It is far more than the €1,827 (£1,570) he owes in unpaid license fees, yet the WDR has refused to release him, and appears hellbent on making an example of him.
“I’m doing this for retirees, single mothers and low-income earners like me,” Mr Thiel told Welt newspaper. “It’s worth it to me.”
Carsten Linnemann, from Merkel's party has backed Thiel
Mr Thiel has no television. He doesn’t have a radio either. Unlike in the UK, there is no exemption from the license fee in Germany for those who don’t use the services paid for by it.
Under German law, every household must pay the license fee, currently €17.50 (£15) a month, whether it has a television or not.
That has fuelled an anti-license fee lobby every bit as vocal as the UK’s, and Mr Thiel has become a poster boy for the cause.
He has attracted the support of the far-Right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which has long opposed the license fee. But he has been at pains to make it clear he does not support the party. “I’m actually on the Left,” he has said. “I have nothing to do with them. I don’t fight for politicians. I fight for poor people.”
Under German law, the licensing authority can seize the assets of those who refuse to pay. The trouble is Mr Thiel doesn’t appear to have any. He earns €14,000 (£12,000) a year, and lives in a shack he rents for just €288 (£248) a month. He sleeps on a mattress in the kitchen and cooks on a gas burner.
He has a protected bank account for low earners, from which money cannot be seized unless the balance rises over a certain limit.
The television company insists he has enough money to pay his license fee, and is demanding he declare his assets before the courts so it can seize the sum.
But public opinion appears to be turning against the broadcaster’s tough stance. A senior MP from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) has become the first mainstream politician to speak out against Mr Thiel’s incarceration.
“It’s a threat to society if a violent criminal can get away with a suspended sentence, but someone who doesn’t pay his license fee ends up in jail for months. You can’t explain that to people,” said Carsten Linnemann.
Mr Thiel is adamant he won’t back down. Under German law he cannot be held for more than six months for the unpaid fee. After that he must be released whether he pays or not.
“Another two and half months. That’s no problem for me,” he said.