German minister accuses Trump of glossing over right-wing violence as UN experts denounce Charlottesville incident

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on Aug 16, 2017.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on Aug 16, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Justice Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday (Aug 16) condemned US President Donald Trump's latest comments on the violence stemming from a white supremacist rally in Virginia, saying no one should play down anti-Semitism or neo-Nazi racism.

Separately United Nations human rights experts called on the United States on Wednesday to combat rising racist violence and xenophobia and to prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes.

On Tuesday, Trump provoked further controversy when he said that those who had been protesting against the right-wing activists were partly responsible for the violence.

Trump's comments came a day after he had bowed to pressure to explicitly condemn the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.

"It is unbearable how Trump is now glossing over the violence of the right-wing hordes from Charlottesville," Maas said in a statement, reflecting concern across the German political spectrum about the Trump presidency.

"No one should trivialise anti-Semitism and racism by neo-Nazis," Maas said.

Maas, who is a Social Democrat member of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition,  is the highest-ranking German politician to address the latest switch in Trump's rhetoric about the violence.

Germany has tough laws against hate speech and any symbols linked to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who ruled from 1933 until their defeat in 1945.

Merkel had told broadcaster Phoenix on Monday that clear and forceful action was required to combat right-wing extremism, noting that Germans had also seen a rise in anti-Semitism and had "quite a lot to do at home ourselves".

Trump has come under increasing pressure over his stance on the violence, with many members of his own Republican party and US business executives distancing themselves from him.

Trump on Tuesday maintained that his original reaction was based on the facts he had at the time, and insisted that both sides were to blame.

The violence erupted in Charlottesville on Saturday during a protest by white nationalists against plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the pro-slavery Confederate army during the American Civil War.

Protesters and counter-protesters clashed in scattered street brawls before a car ploughed into the rally's opponents, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people. A 20-year-old Ohio man, James Fields, said to have harboured Nazi sympathies, was charged with murder.

In Geneva on Wednesday, independent UN experts condemned the violent in a joint statement.

“We are outraged by the violence in Charlottesville and the racial hatred displayed by right-wing extremists, white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups,” the experts said.

“We call for the prosecution and adequate punishment of all perpetrators and the prompt establishment of an independent investigation into the events ... Acts of hatred and racist hate speech must be unequivocally condemned. Hate crimes must be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted.”

The events in Virginia were the “latest examples” of increasing racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, racist violence and xenophobia “observed in demonstrations across the USA”, the UN experts said.  

Recent incidents in California, Oregon, New Orleans and Kentucky had demonstrated “the geographical spread of the problem”, they added.  

The statement was issued by Sabelo Gumedze, chair of the UN working group of experts on people of African descent; Mutuma Ruteere, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism; and Anastasia Crickley, chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  

On Monday, a UN human rights panel urged the US to end widespread detention of would-be immigrants including asylum-seekers, saying the practice had “grown exponentially” and violated international law.