Asylum seekers arrested as 31 suspects investigated for Cologne New Year's Eve sexual assaults


Berlin: Two asylum seekers have been arrested in connection with a series of New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, a development likely to fuel what already is a fierce battle over the status of hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flooded Europe in recent months.

The police said the two suspects were arrested around midnight in the same square outside the city's central train station where the attacks reportedly took place. The police said that during the arrests they had uncovered photos and videos of sexual assaults as well as a list of threatening phrases to use to intimidate German women.

Federal police announced they were investigating 31 other suspects – including an American – thought to be tied to the attacks. Eighteen of those are asylum seekers, police said.

Cologne police placed the number of suspects they were investigating at 21, and it was not immediately clear how or whether the two numbers overlapped. Under German law, the federal police are responsible for probing crimes that originated within the train station, while the city police are responsible for investigating acts outside it.

Initial reports had put the number of young men present during the attacks at close to 1000, though many were thought to be revellers and not attackers.


Still, on Friday the official tally of victims passed 200, and police reports continued to be filed. In addition to the attacks in Cologne, police are investigating similar, though less numerous, assaults in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Stuttgart.

Meanwhile, police in Finland, which has accepted about 20,000 asylum seekers this year, reported that they had thwarted plans for similar attacks in the country's capital, Helsinki.  Police said they had received information that as many as 1000 men were planning to assault women outside Helsinki's central train station on New Year's Eve and  that police had been marshalled there to deal with the possibility. Thus far, only three Finnish women have reported being assaulted by the crowd.

As in Germany – which has taken in more than 1 million refugees this year, most thought to be from Syria – the asylum seekers in Finland are predominantly young, unaccompanied men. Most are thought to have come from Iraq.

Police have said they don't think there is a connection between the attacks, but the apparent police efforts in Finland to prevent the assaults are likely to increase the criticism of German police, who've been slammed for a timid and slow response to the chaos and then for apparently attempting to cover up the extent of the mayhem. Many victims of the attacks have told German news outlets they pleaded with police for help but were left to fend for themselves. On Friday, the Cologne police chief was suspended, a step towards his likely dismissal.

As is the custom in Germany, police identified the arrested suspects with only partial names. One, Issam D., was described as a 16-year-old Moroccan, while the other, Mohamed T., was said to be a 23-year-old from Tunisia. Police said Issam D. was "a known pickpocket".

Mohamed T. was reported to have been carrying what appeared to be a handwritten cheat sheet for sexual intimidation. The list had phrases in Arabic translated into German. The phrases included "I want to [have sex]", "I want to kiss you", "Big breasts", "I have a surprise" and most chillingly, "I will kill you".

Police said cellphones found on the suspects contained photos and videos showing attacks on women.

Meanwhile, federal police announced the nationalities of the 31 suspects they are investigating, a step that is likely to feed the debate over immigration. In addition to an American and two Germans, the group comprises nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, one Iraqi and one Serb. The police said 18 of the suspects are asylum seekers, and that most were suspected of physical assault and robbery.

No other information about those suspects was released.

On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said the nation must not allow those who abuse German law to escape without consequences, and she noted that those consequences should include the possibility of deportation.

Deportation may not be nearly as easily done as said, however. For starters, German law allows deportation only for crimes that result in at least a three-year prison sentence. Sexual assault in Germany typically carries a one-year sentence.

Beyond that, it appears that many of the suspects are minors, and young refugees cannot be deported under German law.  In addition, youth courts in Germany rarely hand out prison sentences, and then only very rarely a sentence as long as three years.

 And finally, German law will not allow deportation to a country where the deportee would be in danger.

The assaults are dominating German news coverage this week, and are being used by anti-refugee groups – which had been losing the national debate on the issue by a fairly wide margin – to show that accepting refugees is problematic national policy.

Frauke Petry, a spokeswoman for the anti-immigration Alternative for Deutschland political party, said the attacks were not without precedent in Germany.

"The mass abuse in Cologne reminds us of the lawless situation at the end of World War II," she said, referring the mass rapes by Soviet soldiers of German women during the occupation. Historians estimate that as many as 2 million German women were raped in the postwar years.


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