German foreign minister testifies to parliament panel on visa scandal

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer gave confident testimony Monday to a parliamentary panel investigating a visa scandal that has sapped his popularity, an appearance that the government hopes will help defuse the issue ahead of a key state election.

Parliament is holding hearings on a 2000 easing of visa rules that the opposition says allowed criminals and women forced into prostitution to enter Germany.

The rules, which led to an influx of people, mainly from Ukraine, are no longer in effect. But with unemployment at 12.5 percent, the issue has hit a nerve with a public nervous about immigration.

A relaxed and confident Fischer told the hearing, which was televised live, that "I have nothing to hide."

"Let's have a look at the accusations - firstly, that we opened the doors to criminals," Fischer said. "Crime statistics don't support that."

"The theory that security was endangered, that the country was flooded with criminals, is simply a propaganda theory of the opposition," he said.

Last week, a former deputy to Fischer, Ludger Volmer, also rejected accusations that the change in visa rules opened Germany's doors to criminals. "This directive did not cause smuggling," he said.

Fischer has insisted that problems were addressed, but perceptions that he dithered in accepting responsibility have raised questions over the judgment of a man who long ranked as Germany's most popular politician.

"If mistakes were made in this office, I bear responsibility," he said Monday. "Any directive that a minister endorses is his directive."

A TNS Infratest survey for this week's edition of German weekly Der Spiegel showed that 54 percent of those polled wanted Fischer to "play an important role" in the future - down 20 percentage points from a January poll and putting him in second place, behind President Horst Koehler.

The scandal comes amid campaigning for May 22 elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats and Fischer's Greens face a tough struggle to retain control of the regional government.

The election, in a state that the center-left Social Democrats have dominated for decades, is widely seen as a bellwether for 2006 national elections.

GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press Writer

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