A German parliamentary committee has begun hearings in connection with a child porn investigation involving a lawmaker. The affair has led to a rift between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners.
The lower house of parliament's interior affairs committee began questioning several of the key players in the political scandal on Wednesday, which is shaking the governing coalition in Berlin.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU), meanwhile, is seeking to paper over the cracks, stressing that she would seek to "restore trust" between her two coalition partners, the center-left SPD and the conservative CSU.
The scandal broke last week, when a police search carried out at the home and offices of prominent SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy was reported by the local media.
It quickly emerged that German police were acting on information from Canadian authorities who had found Edathy's name on a list of customers of an online shop selling child pornography.
Police found Edathy possessed pictures of pre-pubescent boys posing naked, the purchase of which is currently not punishable under German law.
The lawmaker, who resigned from parliament days before the police action citing ill health, denies having committed an offense. He admitted, however that he had suspected that German police may start an investigation against him, when he saw media reports out of Canada of the raid on the child porn shop from which he had made several purchases.
Was Edathy warned?
But suspicion is mounting that Edathy had been tipped-off in advance by party friends or local police, possibly allowing him to remove evidence and delete illegal data from his computers.
"I assume that Mr. Edathy was warned," said Wolfgang Bosbach, the CDU chairman of the committee conducting the closed-door inquiry.
It emerged last week that former interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich leaked the confidential information that Edathy was on the list of child-porn purchasers to SPD party leader Sigmar Gabriel back in October last year.
At the time, Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, were in coalition talks with the SPD to form a new government and Friedrich admitted that he wanted to spare the SPD the possible embarrassment of nominating their rising star for a ministerial post, not knowing that he may be implicated in a scandal.
Edathy was tipped for a top government job as he had gained prominence for his role in heading a panel looking into police investigation of the xenophobic murder spree of the far-right terror cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
The confidential information, however, made its rounds. Late last week SPD parliamentary group leader Thomas Oppermann told the media that the SPD chief had promptly informed several high-ranking SPD officials of the allegations against Edathy, who all deny having passed the information on even further.
Criminal investigation possible
But prosecutors in Berlin are now looking into whether they need to take action against the former interior minister, Friedrich, for breaching secrecy regulations. Chancellor Merkel encouraged Friedrich – who had moved to the agriculture portfolio in the new government – to resign.
Top SPD officials Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Thomas Oppermann (L to R) were all in the know
His resignation has been met by angry tit for tat calls from his party for the SPD to make political sacrifices too.
While the parliamentary panel is hearing the political players in the story about breaches of secrecy, police have begun looking into a growing list of possible crimes:
Were Edathy's online purchases illegal, and did he destroy evidence? It has emerged that he had reported his laptop as stolen just days before police searched his premises.
Did the former interior minister break the law by passing on the information?
Did prosecutors in Hamburg break the law by passing on details of the investigation to the press?
And was the head Germany's BKA federal police overstepping his bounds by communicating with politicians?
While Chancellor Merkel is seeking to play down the scandal and move on, the SPD is only just beginning to gauge what policy concessions may be demanded from them in the name of "restoring trust" with their conservative partners.
rg/mz (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)