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Justice minister calls extent of observation ‘unacceptable.'
BERLIN — With their political roots going back to the former East German communists, Germany’s Left Party members always knew that the intelligence agencies were keeping an eye on them, but they had no idea how closely they were being watched.
It turns out that the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), has been observing over a third of its parliamentary group, including the vice-president of the Bundestag, the Der Spiegel newsweekly is reporting.
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The agency, which is supposed to monitor anyone who could pose a danger to German democracy, has been keeping tabs on 27 of the 76 Left Party members of parliament, as well as 11 other politicians in regional parliaments. The revelations have elicited not just the expected consternation from within the party itself but also fierce criticism from across the political spectrum.
Der Spiegel reported that seven agents are working full-time observing the Left Party, including floor leader Gregor Gysi, party leader Gesine Lötzsch and the vice president of the Bundestag, Petra Pau, at a cost of 390,000 euros a year. In contrast, there are 10 agents observing the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
The news has shocked the political establishment in Berlin. Green party whip Volker Beck questioned the agency’s sense of proportion, while Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the pro-business Free Democrats, who have traditionally been fierce defenders of privacy, was stinging in her criticism. "If this is really true, then it would be unacceptable,” she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The work of freely elected parliamentary representatives but not be allowed to be hindered by the BfV.”
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She said that in the light of agency’s failure to detect the NSU neo-Nazi terror cell which murdered 10 people, it should reflect on its work and priorities. SPD boss Sigmar Gabriel also questioned the agency’s focus. “Have they nothing better to do?”
However, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), was less fazed by the news. He argued that simply being a parliamentary representative should not preclude someone from being observed. After all, he argued, the far-right NPD have members sitting in state parliaments.
Friedrich, whose ministry is responsible for the agency, said that it had a legal duty to observe organizations and parties that could possibly be a threat to the constitution. “There are significant indications that the Left Party has such anti-constitutional tendencies,” he told ZDF public broadcaster on Tuesday.
Friedrich insisted that the party members were being simply observed and were not subject to surveillance. However, that is not something the party accepts. Gysi said on Monday that he was convinced that the BfV is lying when they say that they do not use secret service methods against him and other Left Party members.
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The Left Party formed in 2007 in a merger between the successor party to the East German communists, far-left groups in western Germany and disaffected SPD members. While it has a number of hardline leftists within its ranks, including a Communist Platform fringe group, it is also made up of plenty of pragmatists, known as “Realos”, particularly in the former East.
A Left Party member, Steffen Bockhahn, even sits on the parliamentary committee that oversees the intelligence agencies’ budgets. The fact that he is also on the BfV watch-list has, therefore, caused no small degree of surprise.
Nevertheless, suspicions about the party’s commitment to democracy persist in some quarters. The fact that the party sent a letter to the Cuban leader Fidel Castro on the occasion of his 85th birthday and that one of its leaders, Gesine Lötzsch, seemed to defend the building of the Berlin Wall caused quite a stir last year.
And the SPD and Greens continue to insist that while they are sometimes prepared to govern with the Left Party at a state level, they would not cooperate with it on a federal level because of its ties with the former East German regime.
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