German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s standing as one of the country’s most popular politicians has fallen sharply in a controversy over the release of a former Guantanamo prisoner.
Public support for Mr Steinmeier fell from 69 per cent to 47 per cent, according to a poll, reflecting concern over the controversy, which is weighing both on the minister’s reputation and on unity in chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government.
Opposition parties and human rights groups have called for the minister's resignation if it is proven that in 2002 he helped block the early release from the US prison camp of Murat Kurnaz, a 24-year-old German-born Turk who was held there with out charge until his return to Germany in 2006.
Legislators agreed this week that Mr Steinmeier should on March 8 appear before a parliamentary inquiry into Mr Kurnaz's case, several weeks earlier that previously envisaged.
Senior Christian Democrat allies of the chancellor have also criticised Mr Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, leading to tensions in the coalition. The controversy has in Germany also cast a shadow over the minister's role in guiding Berlin's presidency of the European Union.
The minister, who handled the case until 2005 as ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff and intelligence co-ordinator, said he was pleased he would "relatively soon [in the inquiry] get the chance to clarity points that need to be clarified".
Ms Merkel, who has publicly backed Mr Steinmeier, held talks this week with Kurt Beck, SPD party leader, to avoid further coalition strains on the issue.
Mr Schröder on Thursday defended Mr Steinmeier and accused CDU legislators of hypocrisy, since they had previously criticised his government for “doing too little for national security”.
In the same poll in which Mr Stienmeier’s standing fell a majority of respondents nevertheless supported Mr Steinmeier's argument that it was correct at the time, soon after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, to cite security concerns as a reason against Mr Kurnaz's possible return to Germany.
Mr Kurnaz was detained in Pakistan in late 2001, and transferred by the CIA to Guantanamo in early 2002 under suspicion of being an al-Qaeda activist.
Leaked German government documents indicate that US officials in October 2002 raised the issue of returning Mr Kurnaz to Germany, possibly to be placed as an informer within Germany's radical Islamic community.
Mr Steinmeier attended meetings where the offer was rejected, according to the documents - sparking the claims that he helped prolong Mr Kurnaz's suffering in the US prison. Mr Steinmeier argues that no formal US release offer was made and in any case Mr Kurnaz could have returned to Turkey.