BERLIN (AFP) - The police chief of the German city of Cologne was suspended on Friday for failing to stop mob violence at New Year’s Eve celebrations, as authorities said many suspects were asylum seekers.
Germany, unsettled by a record refugee and migrant influx, has reacted with shock to news that women had to run a frightful gauntlet of groping, insults and thefts in an aggressive and drunken crush of around 1,000 men, described by witnesses as mostly of Arab and North African appearance.
Cologne’s police chief Wolfgang Albers, 60, was suspended from active duty in order to “restore public confidence” in the police force, said Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
Albers had come under intense pressure both for failing to stop the attacks, and for downplaying the true extent of the chaos during the year-end festivities, which only hit national headlines four days later.
Having initially reported a “peaceful” night, Cologne police were slow to report the true extent of the carnage, and the politically charged fact that the hostile crowd was made up of mostly migrants.
By Friday, as more women have come forward, Cologne police had received over 200 criminal complaints, mostly alleging sexual offences from groping to two alleged rapes, Spiegel Online reported.
Albers had come under heavy fire, with Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere fuming that “police cannot work this way”.
A week after the spate of assaults outside Cologne railway station and the city’s iconic Gothic cathedral, federal police said they had identified 31 suspects over offences from theft to physical attacks, though not sexual assaults.
Eighteen of them were asylum seekers, the interior ministry said.
Among the suspects were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one citizen each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States, ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said.
The spate of assaults has inflamed a heated public debate about Germany’s ability to integrate the nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers it took in last year.
Right-wing populists have charged that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal migration policy has fuelled crime and destabilised society.
The anti-migrant and Islamophobic Pegida movement has announced a rally in Cologne on Saturday, while counter demonstrators have also vowed to take to the streets.
On Friday, Swiss artist Milo Moire threw off her clothes in front of Cologne’s cathedral in protest against the sexual assaults, carrying a sign that read “Respect us! We are no fair game even when we are naked!!!”
Merkel’s spokesman George Streiter said it was “important that the whole truth comes out, that nothing is withheld or glossed over”, but also warned that migrants must not be put under general suspicion or collectively blamed.
“Primarily, this is not about refugees but about criminality,” he said, noting that most asylum seekers in Germany had come seeking protection.
Still, the mob attacks have stoked popular anger and fuelled doubts about the biggest influx of asylum seekers to any EU nation, and led to pledges of a law and order crackdown.
“We must do everything to prevent such incidents from happening again,” de Maiziere told the Rheinische Post daily, pledging “more CCTV cameras in places where many people gather, a heightened (police) presence on the streets and harsher penalties”.
At the weekend, Merkel’s conservative party plans to discuss tougher policies, and the speeding up of deportations.
“We need more police, a better equipped judiciary and tougher laws, among other things to more quickly expel criminal foreigners,” said Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Under current laws, asylum seekers are only sent back if they have been sentenced to jail terms of at least three years, and if their lives are not at risk in their countries of origin. And there is a backlog in carrying out officially-ordered deportations.
“Citizens expect that those without a right to stay really do leave the country,” Kauder told news weekly Der Spiegel.
Merkel herself has vowed to “re-examine if everything necessary has been done with regards to expulsions to send a clear signal to those who do not respect our laws.”