BERLIN (Reuters) - German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer faced accusations on Tuesday of having illegally deported a man suspected of being an Islamist militant who once served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard despite a court ruling that he be allowed to stay in Germany.
German authorities deported the man, identified only as Sami A., to his native Tunisia last Friday despite previous concerns that he might be tortured back home and despite the administrative court verdict a day before the deportation.
German opposition politicians criticized Seehofer’s interior ministry for its handling of the case.
“You don’t bend the rule book,” Greens party leader Robert Habeck told ZDF broadcaster on Tuesday.
Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP), told broadcaster rbb: “If courts can no longer rely on the authorities telling them the truth, then things look dark in Germany.”
Sami A. told the best-selling Bild daily he had been told the decision to deport him had come “from the very top and I cannot do anything about it”.
The interior ministry said that while it was politically important to deport the suspect quickly, it had not pressured authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to accelerate the procedure. Deportations are usually a matter for individual states in Germany.
Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said it had only learned about the administrative court’s ruling when the suspect was already on the flight bound for Tunisia.
Seehofer, from the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, takes a hard line on immigration and asylum issues. He almost split the conservative bloc and toppled the government this month in a row over migrant policy.
An Allensbach poll for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper due to be published on Wednesday showed support for the conservative bloc dropping to 30.5 percent from 33 percent, its lowest since October 2010, while support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany rose to 15 percent from 13 percent.
The survey found the recent migration dispute had helped turn migration into a dominant issue of concern among Germans, even though the refugee situation has not escalated.
Sami A. applied unsuccessfully for asylum in Germany in 2006. He was accused of undergoing military and ideological training in 2000 at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and of being at different times a bodyguard for bin Laden, leader of the group. He denied the allegations but was arrested in June.
A spokesman at Tunisia’s justice ministry told Bild the suspect only held Tunisian citizenship. He also rejected suggestions the man could be tortured in Tunisia.
Seehofer also came under fire last week when an Afghan man deported to Kabul from Germany committed suicide after returning home.
Parliament has opened an investigation into the suspected exploitation by Seehofer of his ministerial position for presenting his ‘Master Plan for migration’ to his Christian Social Union (CSU) last month for party purposes.
An RTL/N-TV survey on Monday showed Seehofer’s popularity sliding ahead of an October regional election in Bavaria. Nearly two thirds of Germans said he should quit as interior minister.
Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Additional reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones