Chancellor Angela Merkel-led new German government has been jolted by its first political crisis after a minister resigned over claims he leaked confidential information about an international child pornography probe involving an Indian-origin ex-member of parliament.
Germany's Minister for Food and Agriculture Hans-Peter Friedrich stepped down on Friday afternoon, taking responsibility for leaking intelligence information about an impending investigation against Social Democrat parliamentarian Sebastian Edathy last October, when he was in charge of the interior ministry.
Friedrich has been facing allegations of betraying state secrets after the SPD revealed on Thursday that its top leadership was informed by the minister about information showing Edathy's link to a globally-operating child pornography syndicate and plans to take up an investigation against him on suspicion of possessing such material.
Edathy was the SPD's highly-respected home affairs spokesman at that time and he was considered to be a choice of the party to take up a top job in the new coalition government it was trying to build together with Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats.
Two months earlier, a parliamentary inquiry committee headed by Edathy completed its investigations into the failure of security authorities to prevent a string of nine racially- motivated murders between 2000 and 2007 and presented its report to parliament.
Last Friday, he unexpectedly announced his resignation from parliament after more than 15 years citing poor health. At a hurriedly convened news conference in Berlin, Friedrich said he is fully convinced that politically and legally he did the right thing when he informed SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel during the coalition negotiations in October that Edathy's name surfaced during an international investigation to combat child pornography.
However, he is stepping down as the pressure mounted on him in such a manner that he is no longer in a position to carry out his responsibilities and he also lacked the necessary political support, Friedrich said in a brief statement.
The minister announced his resignation just hours after the state prosecutor's office in Hannover confirmed for the first time that it has been conducting investigations against
Edathy since Monday on suspicion of possessing or attempting to obtain child pornography.
Photos and videos of naked boys between 9 and 14 years found so far are on the "border line" of a criminal offence, head of the prosecutor's office Joerg Froehlich said in Hannover.
However, the authorities are continuing their investigations because their experience showed that those interested in the so-called "category 2" pornography could also be trying to acquire hard-core material, Froehlich told media persons.
According to a media report, the Indian-origin lawmaker had used his credit card to pay a Canadian firm for the photos and videos and it led investigators to track him down.
Froehlich expressed concern that Edathy may have been warned ahead of the investigations. Police raids on Edathy's houses in the state of Lower Saxony and in Berlin and his offices near Hannover on Monday and Wednesday produced very little evidence relevant for an investigation.
Investigators found only two computers and parts of some damaged computer hard drives, he said. The authorities are trying to find out who could have alerted Edathy ahead of the raids and the prosecutor's office will launch criminal prosecution against those responsible, he said.
The SPD's top leaders, who received the intelligence information from Friedrich, said they have not given any tip-off to Edathy and they kept the information secret. They said Edathy has been on a medical leave since the beginning of January and they have no information about his whereabouts.
Merkel said she accepted Friedrich's resignation with great regret. She expressed her deep appreciation of Friedrich's contributions, especially his efforts as the interior minister to reorganise the country's security organisations after the neo-Nazi murders came to light and to strengthen the operations of counter-terrorism organisations at the Federal and state levels.
A successor to Friedrich will be found in consultation with Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union, she told a news conference. Friedrich is a member of the Bavarian CSU, which is a sister party of Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
Image: Germany's Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich announces his resignation in Berlin. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/Reuters