Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas fired the country’s top prosecutor Harald Range on Tuesday over the prosecutor's controversial trial of two journalists, who allegedly published classified documents on the domestic intelligence service’s plans to expand Internet surveillance. The trial had led to days-long fight among public officials about the limits on freedom of press.
Range, 67, said earlier Tuesday that the government’s move of trying to block the trial was not appropriate, and accused Maas of an “intolerable intervention against the independence of the judiciary,” the New York Times reported. However, Maas criticized Range, saying that the prosecutor had, in fact, agreed Friday to suspend the probe, pending a legal review by the justice ministry.
“The actions and statements today by Federal Prosecutor General Range are not comprehensible and send the wrong message to the public,” Maas said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Maas -- who had earlier expressed doubts if the actions of the journalists amounted to treason -- said he had full support of Chancellor Angela Merkel for Range's dismissal. Range was due to retire next year.
“I have let Federal Prosecutor General Range know that my trust in his service has suffered lasting damage,” Maas said in a brief statement to reporters in Berlin Tuesday, according to the Journal, adding: “As agreed with the Chancellery, I will ask the Federal President today to move him into retirement.”
The news of the treason investigation into two journalists -- André Meister and Markus Beckedahl, who worked for the independent website Netzpolitik.org -- was revealed by the website last week. Range reportedly said that he began the probe in May after a criminal complaint was lodged by the domestic spy agency, known by its German initials BfV. The probe reportedly centered on two blog posts from February and April that disclosed plans of the country's intelligence service.
Range said that he called for an independent inquiry to establish whether the documents were state secrets, and that the independent expert had indeed determined that the documents were "state secrets," the Washington Post reported. Range alleged Tuesday that he was asked to withdraw the expert opinion, but Maas denied the allegation and maintained that the decision to do so was made by both of them Friday.
The trial triggered widespread criticism and was considered an embarrassment to the Merkel administration as senior officials in the country have repeatedly said that the government is committed to protecting freedom of the press. The investigation into the two journalists is currently paused and the two have called for the case to be dropped, according to BBC.