German state prosecutors want to end president immunity

BERLIN Fri Feb 17, 2012 7:03am IST

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BERLIN (Reuters) - German state prosecutors have asked the Bundestag to end the legal immunity of President Christiaan Wulff whom they suspect of accepting undue privileges, in an escalating scandal that could hurt Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Wullf has come embroiled over the past two months in a scandal over money, power and political favours that could cost him his job and damage Merkel who installed him in the largely ceremonial office in 2010.

"The state prosecutors of Hannover now have enough actual indications and therefore the start of a suspicion of acceptance of favours," the prosecutors wrote in a statement released on Thursday evening.

"Therefore they have asked the President of the German Bundestag to lift the President's immunity."

Hannover is the capital of Lower-Saxony, where Wulff was state premier from 2003-2010.

His lawyer declined to comment on the prosecutor's request and the President's office was not available for comment.

German presidents have limited formal powers but Wulff's nine post-war predecessors managed to become popular leaders as a voice of higher authority. The president is supposed to embody the nation's conscience largely via speeches and moral suasion.

Analysts believe Wulff is becoming a liability for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who are already fighting uphill battles to retain control of the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland in elections later this year.

Wulff belatedly apologised for misleading the Lower Saxony state parliament about a cheap 500,000 euro home loan from a businessman friend.

The president has also apologised for leaving a message on the answering machine of the editor of Germany's best-selling Bild newspaper threatening a "war" if the daily published a story about his private finance dealings.

He was also later criticised for accepting free upgrades for holiday flights for himself and his family as well as staying free of charge at the holiday villas of wealthy businessmen.

Nonetheless, Wulff has repeatedly said he will not resign.

The head of the German parliament's immunity committee Thomas Strobl told daily Die Welt it could possibly debate a request to lift the President's immunity during the next parliamentary session on February 27.

"The (Social Democrat) SPD will agree to this request," SPD parliamentary floor leader Thomas Oppermann told Die Welt.

"I expect the coalition will also agree to it. At the end of the day, the Bundestag has to make sure that all citizens are equal in the face of the law."

The prosecutors said the aim of their request was to be able to pursue their investigations in a formal procedure.

(Reporting By Sarah Marsh, Sabine Ehrhardt, Thorsten Severin and Peter Mlodoch Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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