Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Germany's Fischer faces crisis over visas for criminals

SCANDALThe foreign minister is at the center of a row over an influx of prostitutes and crime figures from Ukraine

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BERLIN

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, facing a widening scandal involving visas for Ukrainian crime figures and prostitutes, said on Tuesday that he would testify before a special parliamentary commission investigating the matter, but he refused to make any public comments.

Fischer, a member of the leftist Green Party and, by a considerable margin, Germany's most popular political figure, has been confronting what commentators here are calling the party's worst political scandal in the six years it has been part of the so-called Red-Green governing coalition.

The Greens, through Fischer, are accused not just of allowing an influx of criminals and prostitutes but also of failing to stop the abuses after learning of them.

In a statement on Monday, Fischer accepted what he called "political responsibility" for mistakes that may have been made by German consulates in Ukraine, which allegedly issued thousands of visas to criminals and to members of people-trafficking gangs and prostitution rings, between 2000 and 2002.

But his comment provoked a largely critical response on Tuesday, with one newspaper in particular, Rheinische Post, citing a foreign ministry document that, the newspaper said, showed that Fischer knew about the problem a year earlier than he has acknowledged.

The scandal arose three weeks ago when opposition politicians began publicizing the visa reports and blaming the center-left government for looking the other way as criminals and prostitutes got tourist visas for Germany.

The scandal took its first victim on Friday when Ludger Volmer was forced to step down as the Green Party's foreign affairs spokesman. Volmer, who was then a deputy foreign minister, signed the regulations that eased visa restrictions for Ukrainians in 2000.

But since then, opposition leaders, supported by some of the media, have continued pressing for Fischer to disclose exactly when he first learned of the abuses and when he took measures to stop them.

Fischer has defended himself in part by saying that the visa regulations for Ukraine were put into place by the conservatives when they controlled the government before 1998.

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