The Death of an Ideal Killing in Germany Triggers Fresh Refugee Debate
Part 2: 'Freiburg Was Like the Truman Show'
"This has really touched us all," says one woman who likes to take walks in the area. She's pregnant and is expecting her child at any time. She says she lives in the area and hasn't gone outside after dark since the killing, adding that she also avoids the forest. "Freiburg was like the 'Truman Show' -- a perfect world," the woman says, speaking with a light French accent. She teaches at a nearby German-French bilingual school. Now she says she's having to adjust to the kind of attitude toward life that you are more likely to find in a large French city. "Women have to look out for themselves there."
But it's Mayor Dieter Salomon who points out that this idyllic place, famous across Germany for enjoying more sunshine each year than any other German city, is anything but perfect. The Green Party politician has spent years trying to persuade the state to hire more police to patrol the city. Shortly before the arrest of the Afghan man, the Baden-Württemberg state government had agreed to add 25 positions for a limited amount of time. "Earlier people asked: What are the cops doing here?" Salmon says of the city, which has always been known for its alternative, leftish vibe. "Today people are happy to see them." He says people in the city no longer feel as safe as they once did. For some time now, Freiburg has carried a title of which no municipal politicians are proud: It's the city with the highest per-capita crime rate in the entire state.
Unaccompanied foreign minors -- known in official German jargon as UMAs, many of whom wind up in Freiburg because of its proximity to nearby France and Switzerland -- have contributed to that dubious state-of-affairs. Even as the number of refugee arrivals has sunk in most other parts of Germany, by the end of November, 577 under-18s had arrived in Freiburg, close to the 30 percent more than in all of 2015.
Problems arose with some UMAs as early as 2014: Young men, mostly from North Africa, began dealing drugs behind the city's central station, stole things from passengers and harassed women. The city sent the young men to school and tried to place them with families that had some knowledge of educational psychology.
The next event to rile locals happened in early 2016. Following repeated incidents of harassment of women, the White Rabbit, a local music club that draws an alternative crowd, warned that it would only allow refugees to enter if they agreed to listen to instructions about the appropriate behavior in the club and obtained membership cards. In July, an attempted rape reportedly occurred in the women's restroom at the club, and a refugee was accused in the incident.
Does that mean that the recent rape-murder is part of a series of such incidents -- the sad nadir of an ongoing development? Locals believe there is a connection, says Mayor Salomon. But, he says, "the crime is not worse because it was committed by a refugee. I wouldn't be any less horrified had the perpetrator been German." Statements like that have triggered a flood of hate mail for Salomon, with 80 emails being sent to city offices on a single day. Salomon's staff have since been forced to deactivate his Facebook page.
The same is true of the student organization Weitblick, where Maria L. had volunteered. Some media have incorrectly reported that she had provided assistance to refugees as part of her activities for Weitblick, but she had actually been collecting donations for the refurbishing of a primary school in Ghana. The mere fact that the victim's family asked for donations to be made in their daughter's name to the organization was enough to trigger nasty reactions. The initiators of the organization received so much hostility on Facebook and via email that they suspended the Facebook page. "We were shocked by the way the terrible crime is now being abused to promote racist and offensive ideas," the student organization said in a statement.
Fodder for the Populists
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which has risen to prominence with its anti-Muslim and anti-refugee positions and holds 12 percent of the seats in the state legislature, didn't wait long before issuing a statement on the case: "The AfD faction mourns a young woman who paid with her life for Ms. Merkel's message of (opening up to refugees)." Last Sunday, the AfD's local chapter in Freiburg held a "spontaneous protest against Merkelian politics." Only 20 people showed up and they were drowned out by around 300 counterdemonstrators.
But the case has struck a vein nationally. In Dresden, Lutz Bachmann, the head of Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, flew out of his self-imposed exile on the Canary Islands to address the issue. He spoke of one of those regrettable isolated incidences that, "with their increasing frequency provide a very good overall picture." Amid the shouting of the crowd, the words "murdering refugee" almost went undetected as they crossed his lips.
Police statistics, however, don't support such broad generalizations. Germany registered 13 sex crime-linked murders across the country in 2015. Of the 11 suspects who were identified, only one was a foreigner -- and he came from largely Catholic Poland and not from a Muslim country.
As if to illustrate the chasm between the statistics and perception, a second case also now appears to have been solved. In the city of Bochum, investigators there have arrested a man they believe raped two female students. The suspect is a 31-year-old asylum-seeker from Iraq. He came to Germany with his wife and their two children in December 2015. The family had previously been inconspicuous and the man had no police record.
But on August 6, the Bochum public prosecutor's office says K. attacked a 21-year-old Chinese student who was on her way to her dormitory. The perpetrator dragged his victim into small forest located nearby and injured her after putting a rope around her neck. It is alleged that he tried repeatedly to rape the young woman. On November 16, he is also believed to have attacked and raped a 27-year-old female student, also from China.
The suspect in Bochum was identified using DNA, just as Hussein K. was in Freiburg. There, investigators found one of his dyed hairs in a bush at the crime scene and the DNA matched traces found on the victim. This has prompted some, like state Justice Minister Guido Wolf of the conservative CDU, to argue that police should be given greater latitude to conduct DNA analysis in the future. "Technically that would surely provide additional value," says Andreas Stenger, the head of the forensics division of the state criminal investigative office that analyzed the hair found in Freiburg. "Still, you shouldn't implement everything just because it is technically feasible," Stenger adds. "You have to find the balance between liberties and safety."
Following a precedent-setting ruling by the German Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe in 1990, in-depth analysis focusing on traits like hair- or eye color and region of origin have been forbidden in Germany. Crime specialists have nonetheless long been pushing for an expansion of the use of DNA analysis in the country. "It would be helpful if we could narrow investigations down to an individual," says André Schulz of the BDK, the trade union representing Germany's criminal police. But he also adds that the suspected perpetrator in Freiburg was caught through classic police detective work. Using footage from a CCTV camera placed on the tram taken by Hussein K., police noted that the young man had a hairstyle matching the hair found at the crime scene.
A Growing Political Issue
As with the mass sexual attacks on women at Cologne's central station on new year's eve last year, the case in Freiburg is likely to remain a hot-button political topic in Germany for some time to come. In the eastern state of Saxony, Governor Stanislaw Tillich of the Christian Democrats has called for youth convicted of "serious offences" to be deported in the future. He argues that there are safe regions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to which a deportation is possible. Meanwhile, Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, had initially wanted to present his own position paper on the refugee issue last month. The paper was to focus on the question as to how Germany could prevent a repeat of the kind of massive influx of refugees it experienced in 2015. After news emerged that a refugee was likely behind the murder in Freiburg, he delayed the paper's release. Senior CSU sources say the issue of security will now need to play a greater role in the document.
How the situation develops could also depend on the outcome of an investigation into the murder of a young jogger named Carolin G. in the town of Kaiserstuhl, located not far away from Freiburg. "Hopefully it wasn't a refugee," is a comment one hears frequently in Freiburg these days.
For now, though, the murder of student Maria L., has left behind a great deal of hurt: A mourning family that must watch from the sidelines as the death of their daughter is exploited for political reasons; uneasy foster parents who are now questioning their own idealism; anxious refugees who fear sentiment is starting to turn against them; and disillusioned helpers who have growing questions about the very people they are helping. The city is in a state of shock and people are shedding tears over what has happened.
In an obituary for Maria L., friends and acquaintances from her dormitory wrote: "Your unfathomable death has left us devastated."
By Jan Friedmann, Susanne Koelbl, Ralf Neukirch, Barbara Schmid, Andreas Ulrich and Steffen Winter
- Part 1: Killing in Germany Triggers Fresh Refugee Debate
- Part 2: 'Freiburg Was Like the Truman Show'