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16th Feb 2019

German justice minister fires prosecutor over treason investigation

  • The website, Netzpolitik.org, had published classified documents in Spring on plans by Germany's intelligence services to expand internet surveillance (Photo: Bob Mical)

Germany's justice minister on Tuesday (4 August) fired the country's top prosecutor Harald Range over his treason investigation of two journalists, in a case that has gripped the country over recent days.

Tuesday's showdown came after Range accused Heiko Maas, the justice minister and his political boss, of unacceptable political interference in his investigation into an internet rights website.

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  • Data privacy is an extremely sensitive issue in Germany (Photo: aktion-freiheitstattangst.org)

"Exerting influence on an investigation because its possible outcome may not be politically opportune represents an intolerable encroachment on the independence of the judiciary," said Range.

The website, Netzpolitik.org, had published classified documents in Spring on plans by Germany's intelligence services to expand internet surveillance.

The current debate kicked off when the journalists, Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl, last week published a letter from Range saying they were to be investigated for possible treason.

The revelations led to a public outcry and embarrassed the government which was accused of infringing on press freedom. There were protests in support of Netzpolitik while on Twitter #Landesverrat (#treason) became a trending hashtag.

Following Range's accusation of interference, Maas responded that he had "lost confidence" in the prosecutor, who he said had agreed on Friday to suspend the probe into the journalists.

“The actions and statements today by federal prosecutor general Range are not comprehensible and send the wrong message to the public,” Maas said.

He added that he would ask president Joachim Gauck to move the 67-year-old Range into early retirement.

On Sunday Range said he had launched the investigation after a complaint by the country's intelligence agency over Netzpolitik's revelations.

The intelligence agency said it wanted legal action against the publication of documents classified as secret in order to be able to fight terrorism in future.

The issue involves several highly sensitive issues for Germans: the right to privacy, press freedom and freedom of speech.

The questions have been at the forefront of domestic politics over recent years amid revelations that US intelligence services had spied on Chancellor Angela Merkel and generally conducted mass surveillance operations in Europe, raising questions about how much Germany's secret services knew about the operations.

Meanwhile the Netzpolitik affair recalls a famous 1962 case involving Der Spiegel when police arrested several journalists for revealing what the government said were state secrets about weaknesses in Germany's defence capabilities.

Beckedahl, Netzpolitik’s founder, Tuesday said the treason probe was an “attempt to intimidate” journalists and their sources and prevent them from reporting on "the greatest surveillance scandal in the history of humanity".

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