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German spy chief's promotion is retracted after outrage

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Posted: Sep. 24, 2018 12:59 PM
Updated: Sep. 24, 2018 12:59 PM

Germany's spy chief, removed from his job after being accused of far-right sympathies but moved to a more senior government role, will not get the promotion after all.

There had been widespread criticism of the deal to move Hans-Georg Maassen from his position as head of the Office of Constitutional Protection, which monitors extremist organizations, to State Secretary in the Interior Ministry, a role that came with with security responsibilities.

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The outrage triggered new discussions between the three key figures in the ruling coalition -- Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, and Social Democrats leader Andrea Nahles over the weekend.

According to a government statement Sunday night, Maassen will still make the move to the Interior Ministry, but will become a special adviser in European and international affairs, a position in the same pay grade as his former role as intelligence chief.

The botched handling of Maassen's move has raised serious questions over the competence and stability of the coalition, which was cobbled together in January.

Speaking Monday, Merkel admitted that promoting Maassen was an error of judgment and that she had been more focused on ensuring a functioning Interior Ministry than on the concerns of the public.

"I very much regret that that could happen," she said.

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 government response to Maassen's comments was widely criticized, as was his promotion last week, which was seen as a victory for Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union, the more conservative sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, and staunch defender of Maassen.

Florian Post, SPD lawmaker in Bavaria, described the decision to promote Maassen as a "joke," while Families Minister and SPD lawmaker Franziska Giffey condemned the move and called for Seehofer to go, according to Reuters.

Pressure to renegotiate Maassen's relocation was strongest on Nahles, who has been leader of the SPD for just five months. Calls for Maassen to go had been the loudest within her party.

Speaking late Sunday, Nahles said it was a "very good sign" that the government was able to respond to the criticism and "correct" the decision.

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 last week.

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.

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