BERLIN (Reuters) - Members of Germany's upstart Pirate Party said on Friday they had filed charges against the finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia over the state's purchase of leaked Swiss bank data in order to pursue tax evaders.
NRW, Germany's most populous state, has bought several CDs of bank data on German taxpayers from whistleblowers, dividing opinion at home and heightening strains with Switzerland.
"We suspect that (Norbert) Walter-Borjans and everyone assigned to the case has committed a crime," said Pirate Party regional lawmaker Dirk Schatz, one of four party members who pressed charges against the minister.
Schatz, whose party's main policy is to champion broader internet freedom and data privacy, said the offence involved might have been violation of data protection.
A spokesman for Duesseldorf's prosecutors said similar charges had been dismissed in the past because of lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.
NRW prosecutors said last week they were pursuing tax evaders who secretly stashed cash in Switzerland, after obtaining new bank data from a presumed whistleblower.
Their action is likely to strain ties between Germany and Switzerland, which has sharply criticized previous purchases of leaked bank data by officials in the same state.
In part to prevent such purchases, Berne struck a deal with Berlin in April to levy taxes on German assets in Swiss accounts, but the agreement could easily unravel.
The Social Democrats (SPD), Germany's largest opposition party, of which Walter-Borjans is a member, has promised to veto the deal in its current form, while a spokesman for the Swiss government has said it will not be renegotiated.
The Pirates' NRW parliamentary group, formed when the party won enough votes to enter the regional parliament for the first time this year, distanced themselves from the charges pressed by Schatz and said party members were divided over the issue.
"I, like large parts of the group, do not support the charges," said Pirate deputy leader Simone Brand.
(Reporting By Anneli Palmen, writing by Sarah Marsh, editing by Tim Pearce)