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Under-fire German spy chief's 'promotion' sparks outrage

Politicians across the spectrum have expressed outrage at the apparent promotion of Germany's spy chief who ...

Posted: Sep 19, 2018 12:45 PM
Updated: Sep 19, 2018 12:45 PM

Politicians across the spectrum have expressed outrage at the apparent promotion of Germany's spy chief who was removed from his post following allegations of far-right sympathies.

Hans-Georg Maassen, who led the Office of Constitutional Protection, which monitors extremist organizations, will take up a new position as Secretary of State in the Interior Ministry, according to a government statement on Tuesday. Many condemned the move as a "pseudo solution" that mocks those campaigning against the growing threat of far-right violence in Germany.

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In a news conference Wednesday, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Maassen would remain in his post at the spy agency until a successor was found.

Maassen is accused of questioning the validity of a video showing far-right protesters apparently chasing migrants without any evidence to support his claim, and therefore legitimizing attempts by far-right groups to downplay the violence in the eastern city of Chemnitz last month. He later backtracked, saying he had been misunderstood.

The announcement came Tuesday evening following a crisis meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel, Social Democrats (SPD) leader Andrea Nahles and Seehofer, and was widely seen as a compromise solution designed to appease both the SPD, which had called for Maassen to go, and Seehofer, a staunch defender of the spy chief.

"The so-called agreement on Maassen is a joke," Florian Post, an SPD lawmaker in Bavaria, told the RND newspaper group in Germany. "Either the man is fit to hold high office or he isn't."

Families Minister and SPD lawmaker Franziska Giffey condemned the move and called for Seehofer to go, according to Reuters.

The Social Democrats were joined in their anger by politicians from the Green Party, Left Party and the liberal FDP.

FDP leader Christian Linder described the decision as a "formulaic pseudo solution," while Green Party chairwoman Annalena Baerbock expressed concern that Maassen had become Seehofer's "right-hand" man.

"There are not enough adjectives to describe the drama around this grand coalition," Baerbock wrote on Twitter. "But honestly, after today, I'm more worried about the future of our democracy."

Others saw Maassen's relocation as a reward for Seehofer, whose reaction to the violence in Chemnitz and elsewhere has also provoked widespread anger. In an interview with German newspaper Rheinischen Post earlier this month, Seehofer said he would have joined the protesters if he were not a government minister, but added that he would not have marched with "the extremists."

Seehofer on Wednesday reiterated his confidence in Maassen, describing him as competent and full of integrity.

The decision to move Maassen was hailed by some lawmakers in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, including Mathias Middelberg, who described the decision as a sensible compromise, Reuters reported.

The strong reaction suggests that the government's apparent attempt at appeasement has failed and that discontent within the ruling coalition -- which was cobbled together in January after previous talks collapsed -- is deepening.

Public prosecutor: Video is genuine

The main allegation against Maassen relates to his comments about a viral video appearing to show protesters hounding migrants during a violent right-wing demonstration in the eastern city of Chemnitz last month. The protests were triggered by the death of Daniel Hillig and subsequent arrests of an Iraqi and a Syrian man. The Iraqi man has since been released from custody, Chemnitz prosecutor said Tuesday.

In an interview with tabloid newspaper Bild, Maassen claimed the video could have been faked and cast doubt on widespread reports that some protesters in Chemnitz had "hunted" migrants, putting him at odds with Merkel who had said the pictures "very clearly revealed hate" that could not be tolerated.

The Dresden public prosecutor also said the video clip was genuine and was investigating a criminal complaint based on the footage, while several media outlets claimed to have authenticated the video.

Maassen's comments, which were praised by the far-right Alternative for Germany party -- some of whose politicians had joined the Chemnitz protests -- were widely seen as an attempt to downplay the growing problem of right-wing violence in eastern Germany and legitimize anger towards the media.

Following days of pressure, Maassen admitted that the video had not been falsified and that his comments had been misunderstood, according German media reports.

Maassen said he had meant to express doubt about whether the video genuinely showed people being chased, the papers wrote. He denies accusations of showing favor to the far right and the AfD in his comments relating to Chemnitz and in holding meetings with AfD politicians.

Responding to Tuesday's announcement, Alice Weidel, co-leader of the AfD, lamented the loss of a "competent" figure "who had viewed the development of Merkel's asylum policy critically from the beginning."

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