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Freedom of speech overshadows Merkel's refugee visit to Turkey

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to talk openly about freedom of speech during her visit to Turkey. The visit, however, is due to focus on refugees.

In an interview published in German newspaper "Die Welt" on Saturday, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that "in the future, we need to address the postulates of the rule of law, separation of powers and pluralism with regard to Turkey in no uncertain terms at all levels.

"Opinion, art and freedom of the press are not negotiable in a state of law, and we advocate that our partners ensure this as much as we do," he said.

Maas' comments on Saturday come amid the ongoing scandal in Germany regarding comedian Jan Böhmermann's poem targeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader has since sued the German satirist for defamation.

Contested law

Paragraph 103 of Germany's penal code protects foreign heads of state from insult and was evoked by Berlin as justification for taking the proceedings forward.

The case has also sparked a fierce debate on free speech in Germany, as well as anger over Berlin's decision to give the investigation a green light. If convicted, Böhmermann, who has suspended his show for the time being, could face up to five years in prison.

Refugee camp in Turkey

Angela Merkel is due to visit a refugee camp in Turkey on Saturday

Focus on refugees

In Saturday's interview with "Die Welt," Maas said the government agreed that the "very idea of ​​'lese majeste' law is completely behind the times" and that the offense would be abolished. According to information received by "Die Welt" from government sources, the bill is already in interdepartmental coordination, with Merkel having planned to abolish the paragraph by 2018.

Ahead of her trip to Turkey, Merkel insisted on Friday that freedom of expression was important to her. "It will continue to be important to me, and that guides me in all talks," the chancellor added.

A meeting between Merkel and Erdogan is not on the agenda during her visit, but the chancellor said that "all issues would be mentioned during the conversation with the Turkish prime minister" when she meets with Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday.

Obama praises Merkel

Merkel is due to visit a refugee camp close to the Syrian border, just a day before meeting with US President Barack Obama at the Hannover trade fair in central Germany. Ahead of his visit, Obama praised Merkel for her widely contested refugee policy.

The stance was "courageous" - "just like many Germans," Obama said in the Saturday edition of German newspaper "Bild," adding that Merkel showed "true political and moral leadership."

One cannot "just shut the door on fellow human beings when they're in such great need," the US president added. "That would be a betrayal of our values."

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel

Obama and Merkel are to meet again on Sunday

Merkel had recognized "that there must be an orderly process to accommodate newcomers and integrate them into German society," Obama said, adding that the recent agreement between the EU and Turkey should be a step towards a more equal distribution of responsibility across Europe.

Turkey is a key European Union partner when it comes to curbing the migration of asylum seekers trying to reach Europe, most of them fleeing from conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. An agreement between the EU and Turkey calls for Ankara to care for asylum seekers in Turkey, initially in exchange for 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion). In addition, the deal calls for the EU to reopen Turkish accession talks and the lifting of visa restrictions for Turks traveling to the Schengen Zone of visa-free travel.

After her trip to Turkey, Merkel and Obama are expected to meet on Sunday at the opening of the Hanover Trade Fair. According to the White House, Obama wants to promote the planned TTIP Free Trade Agreement. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people are expected to attend a mass demonstration in Hannover against TTIP.

ksb/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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