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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 15:41 GMT
Legal setback for neo-Nazi ban
Far right demonstrator
The NPD has been accused of inciting racist violence
An attempt to outlaw Germany's far-right National Democratic Party has been thrown into disarray by a court ruling, after it emerged that there was a serious irregularity with a key source of evidence.

The German Government - backed by both houses of parliament - filed the request to ban the party more than a year ago, claiming to have clear evidence of the party's undemocratic and anti-constitutional nature.

The case was based on the party's aggressive assertion of Nazi ideas and its involvement in incidents of racist violence.

Otto Schily
Mr Schily is under fire over the hitch
But the Constitutional Court, which has been examining the request for months, announced it was postponing the hearing after discovering that a party leader providing key evidence had worked as an informer for the country's intelligence service.

A significant part of the case against the party had been based on several inflammatory statements made by him, but his status as a former informant raises the possibility that he was an acting as an agent-provocateur for the government.

The court says it will check the legal implications of hearing a case based on the information of informants, and the BBC's William Horsley in Berlin says it may even decide to reject the case in its entirety.

Troubled minister

There is widespread concern that the authorities may have undermined their own case by their choice of evidence, and mounting criticism of the Interior Minister, Otto Schily, who filed the request for a ban.

In a statement by Mr Schily, he pointed out that contacts between the party member and the intelligence agency "had ended many years ago".

"All of the statements from him which have been used as evidence of the anti-constitutional nature of the NPD were made during a period of time long after contact had been broken off."

Opposition parties and Jewish leaders said they were outraged.

"It is inexcusable that the NPD could survive this important effort to ban it because for whatever reason there was some irregularity," said Michael Friedman, vice-president of Germany's Central Council of Jews.

The conservative Christian Democrats meanwhile pointed the finger at the government.

"I find it difficult to forgive what is happening now," said their justice spokesman Rupert Scholz.

Lease of life

The NPD is a fringe party with some 6,000 members, favouring policies benefiting ethnic Germans and demanding an end to immigration. It is blamed for inciting attacks against foreigners.

It is now considered the most dangerous of Germany's several far-right political groups.

While the party is widely denounced within mainstream Germany, some were nonetheless reluctant to see it banned, fearing the implications for freedom of speech and the possibility that a failed attempt would effectively give the group a clean bill of health.

Only two political parties have been banned in post-war Germany.

The successor to the Nazi Party was outlawed immediately after the war, and the Communist Party was banned in West Germany in the 1950s.

Sensing that the NPD may not be joining these two parties imminently, a spokesman said on Wednesday that his party was now preparing to take part in national elections, scheduled for September.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's William Horsley
"Otto Schily is in the eye of the storm"
See also:

23 Jan 02 | Media reports
German press slams far-right ban fiasco
30 Apr 01 | Europe
Neo-Nazis on the rise in Germany
10 Nov 00 | Europe
German Senate backs neo-Nazi ban
09 Nov 00 | Europe
In pictures: German rally
14 Sep 00 | Europe
Germany bans neo-Nazi group
03 Sep 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Race hate in Germany
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