BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new government was rocked by its first political crisis Friday after a minister abruptly resigned over claims he leaked confidential information about an international child porn probe.
Just two months after forming a left-right “grand coalition”, Merkel must replace her agriculture minister Hans-Peter Friedrich after he became engulfed in the rapidly widening scandal.
Friedrich, interior minister until December, had come under intense pressure for tipping off the party chief of a prominent MP that the lawmaker was under investigation in the Canadian-led probe.
The leak, which dates back to October, was reportedly aimed at preventing the MP from being included in a new government during negotiations to form a new coalition.
“I offered Chancellor Angela Merkel my resignation today from my post as federal agriculture minister,” Friedrich said in a hastily called televised statement.
He reiterated earlier remarks that he believed he had “acted politically and legally correctly”.
“But I will also say that the pressure on me has grown so much in the last few hours that the duties … in the agriculture ministry can no longer be handled with the necessary concentration, calm and political support,” he said.
Merkel, still on crutches after a Christmas skiing accident, followed him in front of the TV cameras to announce that she had accepted his resignation “with great respect and great regret”.
“With this move, Hans-Peter Friedrich is proving once again his upstanding demeanour,” she said in a brief statement, adding that regardless of the legal assessment, he had assumed “political responsibility”.
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The case has blown up since news broke early in the week that searches had been carried out at the home and offices of Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker Sebastian Edathy as part of a child pornography investigation.
German media have linked the probe to a global investigation into a Canadian child porn website.
Edathy — who has gained prominence for heading a parliamentary panel into the shock 2011 discovery of a neo-Nazi killer cell — had stepped down from his Bundestag seat days earlier citing health reasons.
He has vehemently denied being in possession of child pornography in an Internet-posted statement.
Friedrich faces claims he may have breached secrecy or had an impact on a legal investigation after telling SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel, now Merkel’s energy minister and vice chancellor, that Edathy’s name was on the investigation list.
The move dates back to October, the month after September 22 German general elections when Merkel’s triumphant conservatives were in the process of building a coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats.
Friedrich said in an earlier statement following what Merkel’s spokesman described Friday as “intensive” talks with the chancellor that he had acted “to the best of my knowledge and conscience” in passing on the information.
Public prosecutors said Friday their investigation into Edathy related to allegations he had obtained material that “bordered” on child pornography.
The head of the Hanover public prosecutor’s office Joerg Froehlich also expressed dismay and incomprehension that information about the investigation into Edathy had been passed on.
He told reporters that despite the prosecutor’s discretion, a lot of information had ended up in the public domain which “dismays me, dismays my office deeply”.
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily indicated that Friedrich’s resignation may not put an end to the matter and could prompt a “domino” effect.
“Prosecutors have already said they want to investigate which politician passed on which information when. After all, someone seems to have informed Edathy,” the Munich-based newspaper said.
“In the coming weeks, SPD politicians are also likely to come into the crosshairs.”
Bild daily said Merkel had pushed Friedrich to resign in a bid to act quickly to stem the political crisis.
Friedrich, a folksy member of Merkel’s Bavarian CSU allies from the southern state, was moved from the interior ministry to the food, agriculture and consumer protection ministry when Merkel appointed her third cabinet in December.
He had come under fire last year over his meek handling of the US online surveillance scandal revealed by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, which angered many Germans.
Opposition parties branded as a “disaster” and a “flop” Friedrich’s visit to Washington in which he had officially sought answers over the National Security Agency’s activities.