Germany's highest court began hearing Tuesday a landmark request to ban a neo-Nazi fringe party that openly rails against migrants, more than a decade after a first attempt failed.
The case before the Federal Constitutional Court argues that the far-right and anti-immigrant National Democratic Party (NPD) is a threat to the country's liberal democratic order.
Constitutional court chief justice Andreas Vosskuhle opened the hearing by saying that the hurdles are high to ban any political party, something Germany last did almost 60 years ago.
A party prohibition "is a sharp and double-edged sword that must be used with great caution," he told the packed courtroom. "It limits freedom in order to preserve freedom."
The bid to ban the party, including its women's and youth wings, to seize its funds and prohibit successor organisations, will require a majority of six out of the panel's eight judges, who were set to initially sit for three days and later issue their verdict.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government supports the case, although it has not formally joined the high-stakes legal gamble launched by the upper house of parliament that represents Germany's 16 states.
Merkel, through her spokesman Steffen Seibert, has repeatedly labelled the NPD "an anti-democratic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-constitutional party".
To make their case, the states must convince judges that the NPD is unconstitutional, represents an active threat to the democratic order and holds an "aggressive and combative attitude".
They will also seek to prove that the NPD, which has staged anti-foreigner rallies and been accused of intimidating anti-fascist local politicians, is creating a "climate of fear" in Germany and "shares essential characteristics" with the Nazis.
Critics charge the proceedings will give the NPD, a party with only about 5,200 members, a national stage and that a ban could turn its leaders into martyrs for their racist cause.
The party, founded in 1964 as a successor to the neo-fascist German Reich Party, scored just 1.3 percent in 2013 federal elections and has never crossed the five percent hurdle for entry into the national parliament.
However, it is represented in the state assembly of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the former communist East and in many town councils in the region.
It also has one seat in the European Parliament, held by former party chief Udo Voigt who once, in a newspaper interview, labelled Adolf Hitler "a great statesman".
The case comes at a time when a record influx of refugees and migrants has polarised German society, and as the number of racist hate crimes has spiked.
While NPD activists have sought to exploit rising xenophobia, they have failed to make gains at the ballot box.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) -- which has shifted from a mainly eurosceptic to an anti-immigration platform -- has meanwhile entered five state parliaments and is polling nationally around 10 percent less than two weeks before elections in another three states.
Post-war Germany has banned only two political parties -- the SPR, an heir to the Nazi party, in 1952, and the German Communist Party four years later.
A previous attempt to ban the NPD failed in 2003 because the presence of undercover state informants within party ranks was seen as sullying the evidence.
Interior ministers of the states say domestic intelligence services have now "deactivated" all 11 undercover sources within the NPD.
But the party is likely to base its defence on claims that informants and "agents provocateur" are still hiding within its ranks, and that the state has spied on their legal strategy, its lawyer Peter Richter has suggested to German media, promising "firecracker" revelations.
Some have criticised the high-profile case against the NPD, arguing that it won't stop other far-right groups, including the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement, while supporters argue a prohibition would at least send a strong signal against xenophobes.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas has cautioned that "even if the NPD is banned, that unfortunately doesn't mean there is no more right-wing extremism in Germany".
Date created : 2016-03-01