Immigrant crime debate intensifies in Germany

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A top politician makes the issue central to his political campaign.

Berlin (dpa) - A key ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn the ire of immigrant groups with his call for tougher action against youth crime and the deportation of foreign criminals.

Roland Koch, the Christian Democratic (CDU) premier of Hesse state, has put law and order at the centre of his campaign for a third term of office in elections on January 27.

The Migrant Welfare Forum, an umbrella organization representing 100 immigrant groups, warned that the debate was rekindling prejudices against foreigners and threatened to divide society.

"At a time when an open and constructive discussion is needed, as well as proposals for solutions, you are creating enormous damage with your election polemics," the group said in a letter to Koch and Merkel.

The chancellor has backed the state premier's call, while her Social Democratic (SPD) coalition partner accused him of "populism" and said existing laws were sufficient to deal with the issue.

Koch used a brutal attack by two Greek and Turkish youths on a German pensioner at a Munich subway station late December to call for tougher punishment for young delinquents and deportation of non- German offenders.

The assault, caught on surveillance cameras, prompted Koch to declare "we have too many criminal young foreigners," pointing to statistics showing half of all violent crime in Germany was committed by people under the age of 21, and that 50 percent of those were foreigners. Since then there has been a string of highly publicized attacks involving youths, both German and non-German, fuelling an emotional debate about crime prevention and deterrence.

Kenan Kolat, the head of the Turkish community in Germany, accused Koch of "fanning racist sentiments in society," and appealed to voters not to re-elect him.

CDU Secretary General Roland Pofalla dismissed the criticism, saying the Turkish community should become more active in the search for solutions to crime by young foreigners instead of "insulting politicians and calling for an election boycott."

Earlier, Charlotte Knobloch, president of Germany's national council of Jews, warned that highlighting the ethnicity of the suspects might play into the hands of neo-Nazi campaigners.

She said crimes committed by youths with an immigrant background were "a welcome argument" for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) to call into question the right of foreigners to live in Germany.

The party, which accuses foreigners of taking away jobs from Germans, praised Koch for adopting a stand its leader Udo Voigt said "will lead to more citizens placing their trust in the policies of the NPD."

The prosperous state of Hesse, where the banking centre Frankfurt is located, is one of four German states that go to the polls this year, ahead of national elections due in September 2009.

Lower Saxony votes on the same day as Hesse and the city-state of Hamburg a month later. All three states are governed by the Christian Democrats. In Bavaria, ruled by the CDU's sister-party, the Christian Social Union, polls take place in September.

The CDU is expected to retain power in all three states it governs, but faces losing its absolute majority in Hesse and Hamburg.

Opinion polls released Friday showed support for the CDU dropping one percentage point to 39 percent at national level, while backing for the SPD was up 2 percent to 30 percent.

In Hesse, the CDU saw its popularity slip by 2 percent, while the SPD improved its position by 3 percent, according to the survey conducted by Infratest dimap.

Analysts linked this to Koch's controversial views and the fact that the state had a poor record in processing crimes committed by young offenders as a result of cutting back in the number of police and judges.

"The government's record in this respect is anything but positive," said Richard Hilmer, managing director of Infratest dimap.

In Munich, where the CSU is expected to win easily, the party has come under fire for an election poster it issued in the wake of the subway attack on the 76-year-old pensioner.

The poster shows one of the assailants kicking a silhouette of the defenceless victim while he is on the ground. On it are the words "... so that you are not the next."

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