By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - German prosecutors opened an investigation into a leader of the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement on Wednesday for inciting hatred after a newspaper printed a photo of him posing as Hitler and reported that he had described refugees as 'animals' and 'scumbags'.
'Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West' (PEGIDA) has forced itself onto the political agenda with anti-immigrant slogans that have attracted tens of thousands to regular rallies in Dresden.
A march by PEGIDA's sister movement LEGIDA is to take place on Wednesday evening in Leipzig after police banned a PEGIDA march in Dresden planned for Monday, as well as counter demonstrations, due to a concrete threat of an attack.
Now PEGIDA's co-founder Lutz Bachmann, 41, who has a criminal conviction for burglary but denies he is racist or anti-Muslim, faces a criminal investigation.
"Preliminary proceedings have been opened. The suspicion is of incitement to popular hatred," a spokesman for state prosecutors in Dresden told Reuters, adding that pictures of the Hitler pose and other comments attributed to Bachmann had prompted the probe.
The mass-circulation daily Bild printed the photo of Bachmann with Hitler-style mustache and hair on its front page. It quoted him as saying the photo had been was taken as a joke, prompted by a recent satirical book about Hitler called "Er ist wieder da" ("Look Who's Back").
The Dresdner Morgenpost newspaper also quoted what it said were Facebook messages from Bachmann saying asylum seekers acted like "scumbags" at the welfare office and that extra security was needed "to protect employees from the animals".
The Hitler picture caused an outcry in a country still trying to come to terms with its Nazi past.
Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, said the real face of PEGIDA had been exposed.
"Anyone who puts on a Hitler disguise is either an idiot or a Nazi. People should think carefully about running after a Pied Piper like this," he told Bild.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Bachmann played down a ribald comment made in 2013, seized on by German media, that "eco-terrorist" Greens, first and foremost former party leader Claudia Roth, should be "summarily executed".
"I am an impulsive person. That was stupid. It was never meant in that way. But I still think that Frau (Claudia) Roth is unbearable for the German people," he said. "In that moment it was wrong. I regret I didn’t resist my impulsiveness.”
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Kevin Liffey)