Merkel Condemns `Repugnant' Public Assault on Women Revelers

  • Witnesses report sexual harassment, rape on New Year's Eve
  • Cologne incident stokes German debate on asylum seekers

German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned a “repugnant” series of sexual assaults on women by groups of young men during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and said the perpetrators will face a tough response.

With Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere saying “people apparently with a migrant background” were responsible, Merkel stepped into the fray on Tuesday as an escalating outcry among German politicians threatened to conflate the incident at the city’s train station with her open-door policy toward asylum seekers. Germans shouldn’t harbor “blanket suspicion” against refugees escaping persecution, de Maiziere said.

Merkel “expressed her outrage at the repugnant attacks and sexual assaults” in a phone call with Cologne’s mayor, Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in an e-mailed statement. The chancellor said “everything must be done to investigate and punish those responsible as quickly and thoroughly as possible, without regard to their origin or background.”

Cologne police have reviewed at least 90 criminal complaints from women who reported being robbed, sexually harassed and in one case raped as they passed through a group of about 1,000 men at the foot of the Gothic cathedral in Germany’s fourth-biggest city, police chief Wolfgang Albers told reporters.

Witnesses and police described the group as “mostly young men, between 18 and 35 years of age, mostly from North African and Arab regions,” though the assailants haven’t been identified, Albers said.

More than 1 million refugees arrived last year in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the largest number fleeing civil war in Syria. Stephan Mayer, a lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc, sought to suggest a link to the Cologne events.

Merkel Headwinds

“It would be terrible if such crimes were committed by some of those who we’ve generously taken into our country,” Mayer, a member of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, said in a statement. “If it turns out that the majority of assailants indeed came from Arab or North African regions, that shouldn’t be hushed up.”

Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, called on his Twitter account for an “outcry” against the Cologne assaults.

Merkel, who is facing criticism from both parties in her Christian Democrat-led bloc for declining to cap the number of arrivals, reaffirmed her principled stance in her first public appearance of 2016 earlier Tuesday.

“In our constitution, it says that human dignity is inviolable,” she told carol singers at the chancellery in Berlin. “That applies not only to Germans and people who live in Germany” but worldwide, she said.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, at a news conference alongside her police chief after an emergency meeting of city leaders, said the New Year’s Eve events were “unbelievable and completely intolerable.” Still, it’s “unacceptable” to tie the suspects’ ethnicity to asylum seekers who have come to the city in recent months, she said.

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