Germany's justice minister has sacked the country's top prosecutor, who had accused the government of interfering with a treason investigation. Heiko Maas said he no longer had confidence in Harald Range, dismissing his statements as “incomprehensible”.
Prosecutors are investigating whether the Netzpolitik website revealed state secrets in articles about plans to step up state surveillance. News of the case sparked street protests last week over press freedom.
The outcry put the government on the back foot, with senior officials stressing that Germany was committed to press freedom and casting doubts over whether the articles constituted treason.
Earlier on Tuesday, in a rare public row between the German judiciary and the state, Mr Range said the government had asked him to drop an independent investigator from the inquiry, who concluded that one of the articles published did amount to a disclosure of a state secret.
The request, said Mr Range, amounted to an intolerable encroachment on the independence of the judiciary. He said that while the freedom of press was valuable it was not limitless.
But the justice minister responded at a news conference in which he called Mr Range's comments incomprehensible and misleading.
He said his trust in the prosecutor's ability had suffered lasting damage and he had requested his dismissal.
Mr Range is 67 and was due to retire next year. Munich's chief public prosecutor, Peter Frank, has been named by Mr Maas as his successor.
The state investigation, into two journalists at Netzpolitik.org, is currently paused. The pair have called for the case to be dropped. Their first story, in February, alleged that Germany's domestic intelligence agency wanted additional funds to increase its online surveillance program. A later article in April concerned the spy agency's efforts to set up a special unit to monitor social networking websites.
Critics have accused Mr Range of double standards, with the prosecutor earlier this year dropping an investigation into alleged tapping of Chancellor Merkel's phone by the the US National Security Agency over lack of evidence. The claims shocked the public and strained German-American ties.