Far-right protests in Germany as spy chief questions reported ‘foreigner hunts’

1,000 demonstrators rally in Chemnitz over fatal stabbing suspected of being carried out by migrant, which has exposed cracks in Merkel’s government

People attend a demonstration in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, on September 7, 2018, after several nationalist groups called for marches protesting the killing of a German man two weeks ago, allegedly by migrants from Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
People attend a demonstration in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, on September 7, 2018, after several nationalist groups called for marches protesting the killing of a German man two weeks ago, allegedly by migrants from Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN — More than 1,000 far-right supporters rallied Friday night over the fatal stabbing of a man in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, for which two recent migrants have been arrested and charged with manslaughter.

In a case that has exposed friction between Chancellor Angela Merkel and top security officials, the flag-waving crowd rallied under the motto “security for Chemnitz” and behind a banner proclaiming “we are the people.”

The number marching was far smaller than the estimated 6,000 or so who protested the day after the August 26 stabbing of 35-year-old Daniel Hillig, which has become a rallying point for far-right groups and politicians.

About 500 counter-protesters gathered nearby shouting slogans like “there’s no right to Nazi propaganda,” while another opposition protest featured an open-air performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a sign “against xenophobia, hate and violence.”

Local media reported one far-right supporter was arrested after being identified as having given the stiff-armed Nazi salute at a previous rally, which is banned in Germany, but police headquarters said they had no details on the report.

People hold a giant banner reading “we are the people” during a march organized by the right-wing populist “Pro Chemnitz” movement, on September 7, 2018 in Chemnitz, the flashpoint eastern city that saw protests marred by neo-Nazi violence. (AFP Photo/ John MacDougall)

Since the slaying of Hillig, the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has sought to mobilize support with its anti-migrant message. But after a brief bump, polling suggests little change.

An Iraqi citizen and a Syrian citizen have been arrested on manslaughter charges over Hillig’s death, which has also put a renewed a focus on Merkel’s welcoming migrant policies and revealed disagreements between her and top security officials.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed sympathy Thursday for the protesters who were provoked by the slaying.

“If I were not a minister, I’d have gone to the streets as a citizen,” Seehofer said, quickly adding: “Naturally, not together with the radicals.”

Seehofer, who heads the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, has long been to the chancellor’s right on immigration, but his rhetoric has toughened as polls show his party struggling ahead of an October state election.

He told the Rheinischen Post newspaper that voters were linking their concerns to the issue of migration, which he called “the mother of all political problems in this country.”

Merkel responded in an interview with Germany TV network RTL late Thursday that she saw it differently.

“Migration presents us with challenges and here we have problems, but also successes,” the chancellor said. Merkel added that she was working with Seehofer to solve those problems.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, left, attend a special faction meeting of the Christian Union parties ahead, of a debate at the German parliament Bundestag at the Reichstag building in Berlin, on July 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

New questions emerged Friday when the head of the country’s domestic spy agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, said he was skeptical that far-right protesters in Chemnitz had “hunted” foreigners down in the days after the killing.

Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, described mobs going after people who appeared foreign. Maassen told Bild newspaper his agency had “no reliable information about such hunts taking place.”

Maassen, who has been in the post for six years, said he was skeptical about “media reports of right-wing extremist foreigner hunts in Chemnitz.” He even went as far as to suggest the video evidence might have been doctored, a claim that was met with widespread disbelief.

“Based on my cautious assessment, there are good reasons to believe that this was intentional false information, possibly to detract attention from the murder in Chemnitz,” he said.

Maassen offered no evidence for his theory. Until now, only far-right supporters had claimed on social media that the video in question was a fake.

In this photo from October 5, 2017, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, arrives for a public hearing at the parliamentary control committee of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, file)

When asked about Maassen’s comments, Seibert said the spy chief did not speak with Merkel before the Bild interview and that he had nothing to add to his own remarks about the Chemnitz protests.

Merkel has said images from the demonstration immediately after the killing “very clearly” showed hate. Authorities in Chemnitz reported several foreigners were injured in the protests following the killing.

Maassen’s comments drew fire from the government parties and the opposition, with the ecologist Greens calling them “frankly absurd” and a “frontal attack” against Merkel.

The Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel’s coalition, urged a thorough parliamentary investigation of the claims, while the far-left Linke demanded Maassen’s resignation.

Police said that several people had come forward saying they were assaulted, including a Syrian, a Bulgarian and an Afghan.

The Dresden state prosecutor’s office, which is handling the investigation, said Friday that video evidence from the scene showed “a multitude of crimes,” including disturbing the peace, bodily harm and the public display of banned Nazi symbols or salutes.

“At the moment we have 120 cases from the 26th and 27th of August,” spokesman Wolfgang Klein told Germany’s dpa news agency.

He backed Maassen, however, saying that so far they have “no evidence of a so-called hunt” in which victims were pursued through the streets and beaten.

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