By Tina Bellon
BERLIN (Reuters) - German politicians are expressing outrage over the case of a fireman who has admitted to setting an asylum shelter ablaze and been allowed to walk free pending charges.
No one was hurt in the arson attack in the small town of Altena south of Dortmund. Seven Syrians who had arrived the day before, including a pregnant woman, escaped injury after neighbors noticed the blaze and alerted them.
But some politicians say the case has cast an unfavorable light on how German authorities are responding to a rash of shelter burnings across the country.
Germany, a favored destination for refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, expects a record 800,000 to a million asylum seekers to arrive in the country this year.
Many Germans have welcomed the influx, donating clothes, helping at shelters and even opening their homes to refugees.
But others are dead-set against Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming stance. German federal police have counted 26 arson attacks on refugee shelters in the first nine months of the year. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a group that campaigns against right-wing extremism, puts the number at 70.
Yet only one person, in the northern town of Luebeck, has been convicted of an arson attack on a shelter this year. That person was given two years' probation.
The Altena case has attracted attention in part because the 25-year-old man behind the attack was a local fireman.
Prosecutors say he has admitted to entering the house, climbing to the attic and dousing it with gasoline before lighting the fire. In explaining his actions, he said he was scared about refugees living in his neighborhood.
An accomplice who acted as a look-out later turned himself in to police and told them of the fireman's role. Because of the fire, the refugees have been forced to leave the town.
Local prosecutor Bernd Maas told Reuters he had decided to charge the men with arson rather than attempted murder or a political hate-crime, which carry tougher penalties, because he didn't believe they had meant to hurt anyone.
"They certainly had xenophobic motives but since they are not part of the right-wing extremist scene, there was no reason to treat this as a politically motivated case," Maas said.
"They didn't want to kill anyone and the suspect in his capacity as a firefighter was aware that setting fire to the attic would not hurt anybody."
A number of politicians have condemned that approach, saying it could set a dangerous precedent.
Dirk Wiese, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) who sits in the German parliament in Berlin, called the prosecutor's assessment unacceptable.
"The offender shared a number of posts from populist right-wing websites on his Facebook page. Two clicks online would have been sufficient to determine his political motives," Wiese said.
Omid Nouripour, a lawmaker from the Greens party, called the prosecutor's decision "absurd" and said there was no doubt in his mind that the attack had been politically motivated.
(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Editing by Noah Barkin and Tom Heneghan)