Public anger is growing in Germany over a series of sexual assaults against women in the centre of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, amid suggestions that authorities were slow to act due to political sensitivity surrounding the perpetrators’ ethnicities.
Politicians and police were facing mounting questions on Wednesday over how a crowd of some 1,000 men “of North African or Arab appearance” was able to mass around the city’s main train station on New Year’s Eve, with roving gangs allegedly assaulting dozens of women with impunity.
Senior politicians have accused the press of self-censorship over fears the men’s reported ethnicities could lead to scapegoating of migrants in general, amid tensions in Germany over its high levels of refugee arrivals.
More than 120 criminal complaints have been filed by women who were sexually assaulted or robbed, including at least two cases of rape. A police spokesman said at least three quarters of the complaints had a sexual component.
The mass assaults have clear echoes of a phenomenon seen in Egypt during and after the Tahrir Square revolution of 2011 when posses of young men would gather apparently spontaneously around young women and harass them, often violently.
Authorities have said there is no concrete indication that the perpetrators were asylum seekers who arrived in last year’s record influx, but opponents of Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy towards migrants have leapt on the possible link. One far right councillor in Cologne wrote an open letter saying the city centre had now become a no-go area for women.
Photo: cen/ N-tv
Police said some of the assaults in Cologne appeared similar to incidents that have been reported over the past two years in Duesseldorf, 25 miles away, where gangs identified as North African have groped women to distract them before stealing their belongings.
The Cologne police chief has rejected calls for his resignation as government ministers demand answers, as the fallout from the police handling of the attacks threatened to become a full-blown political crisis.
There has been widespread condemnation of the city’s police force after an official press release on New Year’s Day described the celebrations as “peaceful”.
Even Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, spoke out in rare public criticism of the police. “I expect urgent clarification: was it organised, was it really North Africans, and how could they say it all went peacefully the next day,” he said.
“It can’t be that you clear the station area because fireworks were thrown, and later these events take place and you wait for complaints to be filed. The police should not work like that,” Mr de Maiziere added.
“We were there in force, we were not overwhelmed,” insisted Wolfang Albers, the Cologne police chief.
The city’s mayor drew outrage after suggesting young women could avoid trouble from the gangs by staying over “an arm’s length” away from strangers – an idea that was bitterly mocked by social media users who posted pictures of the Star Wars villain Darth Vader, cartoon cyborg-detective Inspector Gadget and a Hindu deity, all with their arms extended.
Police have identified three suspects, Ralf Jäger, the state interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia announced on Wednesday, but said they would not be publicly to avoid compromising police investigations.
Earlier, the German police union said it feared arrests were unlikely so long after the assaults.
Meanwhile questions are being asked over why it took five days for the media to report the incidents.
The ZDF public broadcaster issued a public apology after it failed to include the assaults in its main evening new broadcast on Tuesday.
Hans-Peter Freidrich, a former interior minister, accused the media of imposing a “news blackout” and operating a “code of silence” over negative news about immigrants.
“It’s a scandal that it took days for the media to pick up the reports,” Mr Friedrich, who was Angela Merkel’s interior minister from 2011 to 2013, said.
Media commentators warned that tip-toeing around the issue of sexual violence committed by migrants coming from conservative and sexually segregated societies risked storing up dangerous and festering resentments against the wider migrant population.
Norway and Denmark have already experimented with classes for new migrants to explain western sexual attitudes, the law and other issues like dress and the notion of a woman’s absolute right never to be forced into sex, even with marriage.