Monday 23 April 2018

Merkel hit by claims police hid migrants' link to sex assaults

German chancellor's 'open-door' policy on refugees under fire after spate of attacks

People walk in front of the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, yesterday. Photo: Reuters
People walk in front of the main railway station in Cologne, Germany, yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Angela Merkel addresses a news conference in Berlin yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Justin Huggler

Angela Merkel's government is facing damaging allegations of a police cover-up over a series of New Year's Eve sex attacks in Cologne, after claims that most of those responsible were asylum seekers who arrived under her "open-door" refugee policy.

An internal report on the attacks by a senior police officer, leaked to the German media, described offenders claiming to be Syrian refugees.

Two German newspapers published separate allegations that police checks on New Year's Eve had revealed most of those involved to be asylum seekers.

Scores of women were sexually assaulted after a crowd of some 1,000 men took over the square near Cologne cathedral on New Year's Eve.

Senior ministers have said there is no evidence refugees were involved and Cologne police have claimed they do not know the backgrounds of the perpetrators.

But allegations are mounting that police may have sought to cover up evidence of the involvement of asylum seekers.

The leaked police report, published in 'Bild' newspaper and 'Spiegel' magazine, claims one of those involved told officers: "I am Syrian. You have to treat me kindly. Mrs Merkel invited me."

Another, it says, tore up his residence permit before the eyes of police, and told them: "You can't do anything to me, I can get a new one tomorrow."

The report describes the violence as more serious than thought. It was written by the commander of a force of around 100 officers sent to the square as reinforcements, according to 'Bild'.

'Welt am Sonntag', a Sunday newspaper, described the official version of events as "untrue" in a rare online report ahead of its edition and claimed police had checked the ID papers of more than 100 suspects on New Year's Eve.

"Most of them were newly arrived asylum seekers. They presented documents that are handed out at asylum application offices," it quoted an unnamed police officer as saying.


'Express', a local newspaper, claimed a group of 15 asylum seekers were briefly held by police on New Year's Eve in connection with the attacks, before being released.

If confirmed, the reports could have far-reaching consequences for Ms Merkel's refugee policy.

She called yesterday for a "fundamental" debate on how to integrate immigrants, saying the attacks raise "serious questions that go beyond Cologne".

She said: "We must speak again about the cultural fundamentals of our coexistence."

The attacks had shown there was "contempt for women in some quarters", she said, adding: "We need to confront that with the utmost determination.

"We'll need to examine whether we've done everything that's needed in terms of expulsions from Germany, so we send a clear signal to those who aren't willing to obey our legal standards."

Ms Merkel said: "I don't think that these are isolated cases. The feeling among women of being unprotected and defenceless is personally unbearable to me. It's important and a good thing that there have been so many criminal complaints and that police are pursuing all of these."

The German chancellor warned her counterparts that the Schengen system of free movement would die unless they take a greater burden of migrants and better patrol their borders.

Wolfgang Albers, the Cologne police chief, has described the majority of suspects as "of North African or Arab appearance", while press reports have identified most as Syrian.

One reason for the discrepancy may be that many asylum seekers arriving in Germany claim to be Syrian wherever they are from. Until last week, Syrians were let into the country automatically under a fast-track procedure.

Finnish police yesterday reported an unusually high level of sexual harassment in Helsinki on New Year's Eve. Three suspects, reportedly asylum seekers, were taken into custody.

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