Otto Schily Testifies in Ukraine Visa Scandal Probe

BERLIN, Germany -- Embattled German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's centre-left coalition suffered further embarrassment Friday when a cabinet member was forced to testify before a parliamentary enquiry committee looking into alleged immigration policy abuses.

Testimony by Interior Minister Otto Schily came at the height of a general election campaign that shows Schroeder's and Schily's Social Democrats trailing badly.

In what was likely to be the last committee hearing before the September general election, a feisty Schily took the witness stand to testify that he know of no irregularities in the issuance of visas by the German embassy in the Ukraine.

In rambling introductory remarks that went on for more than four hours, Schily pointed out that his ministry had no hand in issuance of visas. All visa authority rests with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's Foreign Ministry, he said.

Fischer has admitted "mistakes and oversights" in the scandal over liberalisation of granting visas to east Europeans.

The visa programme - which was strongly opposed by German diplomats in east Europe - led to a large number of people getting visas ostensibly as tourists to travel to Germany and European Union (E.U.) nations in the Schengen bloc which have eliminated border controls within the E.U.

Many of those granted German visas, however, are alleged to have come to work illegally including in prostitution.

The exact number who have arrived in Germany under the programme is unclear but one of the companies which provided mandatory travel insurance to those getting visas issued 172,000 policy certificates.

Both the companies which issued insurance policies have since had their semi-official status revoked by the German Foreign Ministry.

One of the firms, Reiseschuetz AG, was found to have been working with organisations involved in people smuggling.

Smelling political blood, leaders of the opposition Christian Democratic alliance (CDU/CSU) launched the parliamentary probe into the visa affair and subpoenaed testimony by Fischer.

Thousands of pages of ministry documents have been obtained by parliament for the probe which is expected to culminate just in time for Germany's general election in which Schroeder and Fischer are seeking a third term.

Source: Expatica