A ferocious debate has erupted in Germany over the handling of mass sexual assaults and muggings carried out by groups of young immigrant males during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, amid accusations of a police and media cover-up over fears of whipping up anti-foreigner sentiment amid the migrant crisis.
About 100 complaints have now been made to police, two-thirds of which are linked to sexual assault, including two rapes. According to police and witnesses, the perpetrators were of north African and Arab appearance, although neither the identity nor origin of any of them has so far been established.
The incidents have highlighted the tensions that have been bubbling in German society in the wake of Angela Merkel’s controversial open-door policy towards refugees, which has seen more than 1 million people arrive in the past 12 months, with thousands more coming every day.
They have triggered renewed calls from rightwing populists such as the Alternative for Germany ( AfD) party and the anti-Islamic movement Pegida for Merkel to put a stop to the mass immigration.
As women’s groups demonstrated on the square outside Cologne’s main railway station, calling on the government to do more to tackle male violence, fury over the attacks only increased as police admitted it was unlikely they would manage to convict any of the perpetrators. Later on Wednesday the authorities said German police had identified three suspects in connection with the attacks but had not yet made any arrests.
Police in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf have also reported similar incidents but on a smaller scale than Cologne, where between 500 and 1,000 men may have been involved in the attacks as revellers met outside the city’s Gothic cathedral to see in the new year.
According to witnesses, the males, between 15 and 35 years old, tightly surrounded women in groups of 30 or 40, before groping them and mugging them and their partners. Many threw firecrackers into the crowds, adding to the mayhem that ensued, which later forced the police to clear the square.
Police have said the men appeared to have been coordinated, comparing their modus operandi to that of criminal gangs that have operated in strength for several years in the area and turning it into a place many Cologners avoid after dark. Known locally as antänzer (waltzers), the men snuggle up to their victims, often twisting a leg around them in an apparently playful fashion, which causes them to lose balance, whereupon the perpetrator uses the opportunity to whip a wallet or mobile phone from a pocket or bag.
Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, managed to stoke the anger with her advice to women to protect themselves from such attacks in future by keeping “more than an arm’s length away” from strangers. With an eye on carnival celebrations that kick off in the city next month, she urged women to “stick together in groups”. She was lambasted for the remarks on social media and later apologised, saying they had not been reported in their full context.
Manuela Schwesig, the federal minister for family affairs, condemned Reker’s remarks, saying: “The time when women were not supposed to wear miniskirts is over.”
The government and local politicians have been at pains to point out there is no evidence that refugees were involved in the attacks. “There’s no evidence that we’re dealing here with people who are refugees,” said Reker, who was stabbed in October during her campaign to become Cologne’s mayor by a man who disliked her pro-refugee stance. She told reporters that any suggestions that the perpetratorsmight have been refugees were “absolutely impermissible”.
But many on the far right were just as keen to emphasise that there was no evidence as yet to suggest the contrary. Both left and right are aware of how politically combustible it could be if there were any indication that Germans’ willingness to welcome refugees has been abused.
Cologne’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, has also said: “So far, we have no knowledge of who the perpetrators are.”
The events have since come to dominate German media, but following a barrage of complaints on social media that the New Year’s Eve events were deliberately under-reported amid fears they would encourage anti-immigrant sentiment, Germany’s public broadcaster, ZDF, was forced to apologise for its decision not to report on the attacks until Tuesday, four days after they had occurred.
“The news situation was clear enough,” the show’s deputy chief editor, Elmar Thevessen, wrote on the Heute (Today) programme’s Facebook page. “It was a mistake of the 7pm Heute show not to at least report the incidents.”
Andreas Scheuer of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU, accused the media of exercising too much caution and forming a “cartel of silence”.
“I appeal to everyone that we report with clarity and truth,” he told the German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. He said at a time when people were concerned about the future of German society, after so many refugee arrivals, that it was wrong to “pussy-foot around with the truth” rather than “reflect reality”.
Kristina Schröder, a former family minister from the CDU, said it was high time for Germany to deal with the cultural differences. “For a long time it was taboo, but we must grapple with masculinity norms that legitimise violence in Muslim culture,” she tweeted.
Sascha Lobo, a columnist with Spiegel magazine, also said it was appropriate for Germans to engage in some straight-talking. “Yes, there does exist a problematic perception of women in Islamic-oriented cultural circles. And yes, one must examine how this perception of women also results in violence in Germany,” though he went on to insist it was important to differentiate between “the Cologne perpetrators and those who apparently look like the Cologne perpetrators”.
Among the increasing number of victims who came forward to tell their accounts of what had happened to them, Michelle, 18, told the station NTV how she had suddenly been surrounded by 20 to 30 men.
“We were a group of 11 people. We held hands – simply desperate that none of us would get torn away – the men were in front of us. They groped us and we tried our best to get away as soon as possible.” Only afterwards did some of them realise their mobile phones had been stolen.
They watched as the men set off fireworks in front of the cathedral, unhindered by the police. Their attempts to re-enter the station to get trains home were blocked by police, who she said prevented anyone from entering “because of the huge crowds”.
In an interview with Die Welt newspaper, the respected criminologist Christian Pfeiffer described the men as “largely young, single men, who have arrived in this country and don’t know what to do with themselves.
He said: “The clarification of their asylum status took such a long time that their frustrations and anger only grew.”
But he said to label them as pickpocket gangs was missing a wider point. “That is a distraction from the problem that we have seen in recent times and for which we must find an answer. This is an alarm signal that we need to do more.”
Others compared the lack of inhibition to sexually assault women in a crowd, where their actions could go largely unnoticed, to events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab spring, where women found themselves similarly molested. Observers also made a connection between German politicians’ reluctance to confront the issues in Cologne head-on with the nervousness of British politicians to tackle the issue of Asian sex-grooming gangs in the UK.
Police said they were still trying to establish the extent to which the attacks might have been coordinated. But Ralf Jäger, North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, said his suspicion was the men had organised themselves via social media, though a coordinated plan to cover several cities was unlikely.
“But my own feeling tells me that they didn’t just accidentally meet up,” he said. “Rather group dynamics were likely at play” involving “inhibition thresholds, in combination with alcohol and criminal energy from some of them, that fell away”.
The federal interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, criticised police for “failing to do a proper job”, not least after they filed a report saying the night had “passed off peacefully”.
But the minister was slapped down by Cologne police leaders. While admitting the police had made operational mistakes, Rainer Wendt, head of the police trade union DPoIG, accused De Maizière of joint responsibility for what he called an insufficient police presence.
“De Maizière needs to ask where were the many federal police officers who should have been on the duty roster at Cologne station?” he told Hessischer Rundfunk radio. “For months they have been diverted to Bavaria,” he said, on border security duty linked to the refugee arrivals.
As police said they were questioning three men in connection with the events, but had made no arrests, Wendt warned that such attacks could easily happen again because those involved would have “little to fear” from the law as it was unlikely any of them would ever get caught.
“It is highly uncertain whether, in the case of the attacks in Cologne, we will see even a single prosecution,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper, citing a lack of police resources. He said that if perpetrators were not caught “they will feel completely encouraged to strike again in the shadow of their anonymity”.
Wendt said analysis of CCTV footage of the events on Thursday evening and early Friday morning was not likely to deliver concrete proof of an individual’s involvement in the attacks, due to the dark and the size of the crowds.
Police chief Albers, who has called the attacks “a new dimension in crime”, rejected calls for his resignation, saying he was needed to coordinate the policing of Cologne’s carnival.
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