BERLIN - A German court on Friday temporarily prohibited the BfV domestic intelligence agency from placing the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, a major embarrassment for the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was the second time in two years that the administrative court in the western city of Cologne, where the agency is based, had restricted its monitoring of the AfD, arguing that such activities put the anti-immigrant party at a disadvantage and amount to interference with the democratic process. The intelligence agency had last week formally placed the AfD, Germany's largest opposition party, under surveillance on suspicion of trying to undermine the constitution, people briefed on the decision said. "The constitutionally guaranteed equal opportunities for political parties are being interfered with in an unacceptable manner," the Cologne court said in a statement. It said the BfV had failed to stick to an agreement to keep any surveillance activities against the party secret. "This basis of trust has now been destroyed. With every announcement, the encroachment on the equal opportunities of the political parties deepens," it added. It was not clear who had leaked the BfV decision to start spying on AfD members, which was first reported by Der Spiegel magazine on Wednesday. The BfV's decision to start using spying methods like call interceptions and funding scrutiny was made after a two-year review of the AfD's political platform as well as speeches by its leaders that concluded there was evidence to suspect the party had extremist, unconstitutional tendencies. The AfD entered the national parliament four years ago as the third-largest party, winning almost 13% by drawing voters angry with Merkel's 2015 decision to welcome almost one million, mainly Muslim migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Its rise has been accompanied by a rise in hate speech and attacks against liberal politicians as well as members of the Jewish and Muslim minority groups. The AfD welcomed the court's decision. "The decision is a slap in the face of the BfV," said Alexander Gauland, the AfD's honorary chairman. Merkel's conservatives and their Social Democrat coalition partners, as well other parties who say the AfD's rhetoric contributes to an atmosphere of hate that encourages violence, had welcomed the BfV's stepped up surveillance of the party. Germany is in the run-up to federal elections this year. Opinion polls predict the AfD placing fourth. The AfD had in 2019 secured a court ruling that prevented the BfV from publicly announcing its decision to launch an extremism review of the AfD, as this would put it at a disadvantage in elections. The BfV declined to comment on the suspension. It can challenge the ruling and an appeal will have to be decided by the higher administrative court in Muenster, the Cologne court said. The Cologne court said in January that the BfV had committed not to spy on the AfD's national leaders or lawmakers in the regional and national parliaments as long as the court case was being heard. REUTERS
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