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Austria plans to dissolve fraternity in neo-Nazi scandal

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday the government planned to disband a fraternity over its anti-Semitic songbook, amid calls for a far-right politician to resign for having been the group’s deputy leader.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz talks during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Days before last Sunday’s regional election in the province of Lower Austria, a weekly newspaper reported the songbook’s contents, adding that its deputy leader was Udo Landbauer, the lead candidate for the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO), junior coalition partner to Kurz’s conservatives in Vienna.

Landbauer suspended his membership in the Germania zu Wiener Neustadt fraternity soon afterwards but has refused to quit politics or his provincial assembly seat, despite calls for him to do so, including from President Alexander Van der Bellen.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into four unspecified people under a law banning Holocaust denial and other Nazi-related offences.

“I have agreed in the government and in particular with the interior minister that he will introduce a dissolution procedure against Germania,” Kurz told reporters before a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

“I believe this is the right thing to do because where such a thing occurs there is not only individual responsibility, there is also collective responsibility.”

But Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, who also hails from the FPO, said the fraternity would only be dissolved if investigations proved it had committed criminal acts.

“Mere suspicion does not suffice to justify the dissolution of the club,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement, adding there was no limit to how long such an investigation might take.

Lyrics in the songbook joke about the extermination of Jews in gas chambers. Landbauer says he did not know of the anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi content, since the book was published in 1997, well before he joined, and he had only seen copies with those passages redacted or pages torn out.

The Freedom Party has stopped short of forcing him out, saying he had assured it he did nothing wrong.

In Austria, right-wing student fraternities sometimes espouse ideas with echoes of Nazism, like the concept of an expanded Germany including Austria.

About 40 percent of FPO members of parliament, several FPO ministers and numerous FPO ministry staff are members of such fraternities, according to Austria’s main Jewish body IKG.

The Freedom Party was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s but says it has abandoned Nazi ideology. It rails against Islam but denounces anti-Semitism and courts Jewish voters, with limited success.

The IKG has a policy of having no dealings with the Freedom Party or its ministers. It has also called on Landbauer to resign.

In a surprising twist, the Social Democrats (SPO) said they had expelled a member for having illustrated the same songbook after prosecutors placed him under investigation.

“The person was excluded from the provincial party leadership as well as the SPO,” it said in a statement on Tuesday evening, without naming the individual.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Roche