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Germany

New Problems for Case Against Far-Right Party?

Germany's state interior ministers have informally reached an agreement to shield the identities of informants in the government's case to ban the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD).

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The German government says the NPD's extremist views fan the flames of xenophobia

Though it remains a fringe element, with about 6,500 members, the National Democratic Party (NPD) is one of the most prominent voices of extremism in Germany today. The government is seeking to ban the group, but concern is growing that missteps over the use of informants in its investigation could derail its case before the Federal Constitutional Court.

The Karlsruhe-based court is currently considering three petitions brought against the party by the federal government, parliament and upper legislative chamber. The trial was set to begin in February, but oral arguments were derailed following a scandal over NPD leaders who had served as informants in the government's case. At least one was also scheduled to testify as a witness in defense of the NPD.

The justices say the government must reveal any members of the NPD's executive leadership who have cooperated with the state and federal government since 1996. Though the court has said the need to shield informants could make it difficult for the government to turn over every name, it did order it to explain reasons for each omission and determine whether "alternative sources" could be found instead.

However, on Wednesday, the interior ministers confirmed they had come to an agreement not to reveal the identities of any more informants.

A spokesman for Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein, who is leading the government's effort to ban the party, said the interior ministers came to an agreement in June not to release information that would tip off the NPD to informants within the party.

FDP calls on government to drop case

In response, the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP) has renewed its calls for the government to withdraw its case. "The dangers we've warned about all along for a successful ban of the NPD are increasing," said Jörg van Essen, the FDP parliamentary group's business manager.

The legal issues spokesman for Alliance '90/The Greens also criticized the unwillingness of the government to reveal the identities of the NPD informants. Volker Beck pleaded with the government to release the names. "I support setting aside the protection of the sources because allowing the case to be thwarted would cause greater damage," he told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

But the interior minsters of Bavaria and Lower Saxony, who have been responsible for filing the case, say the informant scandal is not likely to derail it.

A case on hold

The Constitutional Court temporarily suspended the case on January 22 after it learned that a key member of the NPD's leadership had at one point served as an informant for the Office of the Protection of Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency whose investigation built the foundations of the government's case.

The court learned that part of the government's case had been gleaned from Wolfgang Frenz, an NPD official and witness for the defense who had worked as an informant for the North Rhine-Westphalia state Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Days later, it learned that Udo Holtmann, head of the NPD's state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, had also aided in the government's case.

The V-Leute

The government has said it must rely on unidentified informants in such cases. Informants, which are called V-Leute in German, were also instrumental in the recent effort to ban the Union of Islamic Associations and Communities. The religious group -- led by Metin Kaplan, the self-named and somewhat ghoulish "Caliph of Cologne," who is sitting in a German prison on an attempted murder conviction -- has called for overturning the German government and introducing Islamic law.

The government banned the group under a provision of recently passed anti-terror laws that permit the banning of religious organizations if they pose a threat to national security.

Safeguarding the Constitution

German law provides for the banning of political parties that threaten to undermine democracy in the country, and in its petition to the court, the government said the NPD was "aggressively" trying to do so.

In its 53-year history, only two political parties have been banned by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1952, it banned the Socialist Reich Party, which had become a magnet for former members of the Nationalist Socialist Party. Then, in 1956, the court ordered a shut down of the Communist Party of Germany.

It would like to make the NPD No. 3 on that list.

The government says the NPD's messages are imbued with "racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic" ideas that "play down" the atrocities committed by the National Socialists and "glorify" them. Last year alone, the government says, the NPD incited violence that led to six deaths.

To many, the party represents a tatooed, stubble-haired, menacing blemish on Germany's image abroad -- and they'd like to have it removed.