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Germany

Pirates file suit over purchase of tax evasion CDs

Four members of Germany's new Pirate Party have filed a legal complaint against the finance minister of North-Rhine Westphalia state, accusing him of violating data privacy by buying CDs abroad to catch tax evaders.

The complaint filed with prosecutors in Dusseldorf on Friday follows media reports earlier in the week that the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) had once again purchased a CD containing the data of alleged German tax evaders who have parked their money in Switzerland.

North-Rhine Westphalia's left-of-center Social Democrat-Green Party governing coalition has purchased several such CDs over the past two years, intensifying a diplomatic row with Switzerland and dividing public opinion in Germany.

The four complainants accuse NRW Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans of violating data privacy laws.

Data obtained illegally, say complainants

The four Pirate Party parliamentarians who launched the action are Dirk Schatz and Nico Kern from North-Rhine Westphalia, parliamentarian Wolfgang Dudda of Germany's northern Schleswig-Holstein state, and Düsseldorf lawyer Udo Vetter.

Schatz said that they did not question whether tax evaders should be punished, but rather they were concerned about how the information was obtained.

"We suspect that Walter-Borjans and everyone assigned to the case has committed a crime," Schatz said.

Schatz argued that since the data on the CDs is protected by bank privacy laws, the information may have been obtained illegally. North-Rhine Westphalia's finance ministry, as the purchaser, could therefore be an accomplice to a crime, he argued.

Hypocrisy, replies NRW minister

Walter-Borjans, for his part, accused the four Pirate Party members of hypocrisy, saying they were contradicting their own professed values.

"It's remarkable that the partisans of transparency and opponents of intellectual property would become the protectors of Swiss bank secrets and the billions in illegal money invested there," Walter-Borjans said.

The public prosecutor in the regional capital, Düsseldorf, said that similar complaints had been submitted in the past and ultimately failed due to a lack of evidence.

Walter-Borjans told German ZDF public television last week that CD data purchases were necessary to expose otherwise anonymous tax evaders who were withholding hundreds of millions of euros in would-be revenues needed for public services.

Pirate Party divided

The Pirate Party's 20-member parliamentary group in North-Rhine Westphalia quickly distanced itself from the lawsuit. Christina Herlitschka, the party's regional vice chairwoman, criticized the four lawsuit filers for singling out the finance minister.

"We hold the approach of Mr. Kern and Mr. Schatz to be very unfortunate because the issue at hand is not about Norbert Walter-Borjans as a person, but instead is about his office and the associated powers and responsibilities," Herlitschka said.

"In addition, as a matter of political respect, the filers should have informed the finance minister of their motives before submitting the lawsuit," she added.

In the name of the law

Switzerland says the CD purchases undermine its bank privacy laws, while Germany says it is simply trying to enforce its tax laws.

The two neighbors came to an agreement in April, in which Germany could levy taxes on its citizens' assets in Switzerland if it stopped purchasing the CDs. But the agreement remains shaky due to subsequent reports that German authorities were trying to obtain additional CDs.

slk/ipj (AFP, Reuters)