Photo Gallery: A Killing in Freiburg

Foto: Eric Vazzoler / DER SPIEGEL

The Death of an Ideal Killing in Germany Triggers Fresh Refugee Debate

The recent rape and murder of a student in the bucolic university town of Freiburg, Germany, has shaken a city that welcomed refugees with open arms. As it emerges that a young Afghan man may have been the killer, a national debate on migrants is unfolding. By SPIEGEL Staff

Khadem Gholani put on a black hoodie for the interview. It's emblazoned with the words, "I've got 99 problems."

At the moment, though, the 19-year-old from Afghanistan is dealing with problem No. 100: The police claim that a young compatriot of his raped and murdered a female student in the southern German university city of Freiburg in October. Khadem also came to the city as a refugee, but he says he doesn't know the suspect. He says he's shocked by the crime, as are his foster parents and the whole city. He says he's afraid people might attack him or try to avoid him altogether in the future.

The young man is trying to finish up his secondary education and then start training as a tiler and rent his own apartment. That's the point at which he will leave the foster family that takes care of him, with their full refrigerator and golden retriever Salomon.

"We're afraid that doors will close on Khadem," says foster father Andreas Wende, who is sitting next to him in the kitchen. The family has been talking about the murder for the last several days, about the suffering of the victim's family and what the killer's foster parents are likely going through.

The Wende family -- father, mother, 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter -- took in their foster son two years ago. "At the time, the German culture of welcoming refugees with open arms was still going strong," Wende says. The psychologist says he has since grown more skeptical and even more fearful. "I have learned that problems can arise with the integration of young men from foreign cultures that need to be addressed in a professional setting."

'Nothing Like This Has Ever Happened Before'

Many in Freiburg, and also across the country, feel that the murder of the young student also marked the death of an ideal -- that foreigners wouldn't have any trouble adapting here and that there were no serious hurdles to prevent integration, at least none that couldn't be overcome with a bit of effort. "This is a worst-case scenario for anyone doing refugee work," says Thomas Köck, head of the Campus Christopherus Youth Foundation in Freiburg, the organization that placed Khadem with the Wende family. "Nothing like this has ever happened before and it has deeply affected us all."

The reactions to the murder have spread far beyond Freiburg. Rainer Wendt, the head of the German police officer's union, spoke of the danger of "mass immigration," and representatives of the German parliament warned of populism and "sedition." Right-wing politicians within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have also used the incident as an opportunity to renew old calls for criminals to be deported more quickly and for prosecutors to be given more leeway.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has addressed the killing. "If it turns out that it was an Afghan refugee, then it should be condemned every bit as much as it would with any other killer, but it should also clearly be labelled for what it is."

Suspected killer Hussein K., a 17-year-old born on Nov. 12, 1999, in the central-Afghanistan town of Ghazni, speaks Dari as his mother tongue. He traveled to Germany on Nov. 18, 2015, during the period in which the flow of refugees along the Balkan route had reached its peak. K. arrived without his parents or any other adult relative: "Unaccompanied," is the word used by bureaucrats. He had no identification papers with him and he submitted his asylum application in February through the district administrative office in the city, which also became the youth's legal guardian.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2016 (December 10, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees hadn't yet considered his asylum case. On his application, he stated he could not be deported from Germany. K. is likely a member of the largely Shiite Hazara minority in Afghanistan which has at times been persecuted by the Taliban. Many Hazaras live in Iran, where they are often viewed as second-class citizens, and it's possible that's also where K. came from.

He had been living with his foster family in the eastern part of Freiburg, in a house at the edge of the forest, since spring. His foster father has a career in a respected profession. K. had been attending a local private vocational school since December that specializes in children and young adults with special educational needs. He had previously lived in a group home affiliated with the school, where he stayed with other young refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

Marijuana and Alcohol

A fellow pupil at school described him as being young man who had difficulty getting his life together. The source said Hussein smoked marijuana and drank a lot of alcohol, especially vodka. "Everyone knows." He says Hussein often met with other young men in Colombi Park near the city's central train station, having purchased the alcohol earlier, either at a supermarket or a corner store.

He says he saw Hussein recently in the city and had a brief, inconsequential chat with him. "Last month he was sad, before that he was always quite funny," says the young man.

On one occasion, the police responded to a call after Hussein got into a scuffle at school. The local public prosecutor's office also reports there was another incident this April in which K. was accused of taking part in a "dispute between young men" on a football field. But "the results of the investigation showed that the suspect was more the aggrieved party than the culprit," says a spokesperson for the prosecutor.

"He was never home -- he was always out somewhere," says one refugee who is friends with K. on Facebook. "You never knew where he was." He nonetheless describes K. as a "nice person. I wouldn't have thought he would do something that horrible."

On his Facebook page, K. presents himself in rapper chic, a cool guy with a black baseball cap, sometimes wearing white headphones. On a few selfies, he can be seen with short dark hair. Others show him with long hair on top that has been dyed a slightly lighter color.

K. also posted an image of an imaginary wolf figure leaning over a woman. There is also a picture of a tattoo that is likely his own. It shows a bird of prey and text featuring a life motto that roughly translates as: "That which we saw in front of our eyes transformed into our fate. We hardly had a chance to think about it before people were writing on a gravestone: The Lord has summoned us." Is there more to the text than just a teenager's dark thoughts? Is it a sign of psychological problems?

The Killing

The circumstances surrounding the crime are still being investigated and K. has kept silent about the allegations. Police say that the suspect took a tram shortly before 2 a.m. on on October 16, the night of the killing, from Bertoldbrunnen, a fountain in Freiburg's city center, to Littenweiler, a neighborhood in the city's southeast, and got off at the last station 15 minutes later. Police also believe that K. encountered his alleged victim at some point after 3 a.m. along the Dreisam River. According to what investigators have thus far found, police don't believe the two knew each other previously.

Maria L., whose family lives in the city of Pforzheim near Stuttgart, was biking home from a big party for medical students at the university's Natural Sciences Campus to her Catholic-run student dormitory. The next morning, a woman walking in the area discovered the woman's body in the river. She had been raped and drowned.

The perpetrator committed the crime at a site known to almost every resident of Freiburg who likes to take walks or has any interest in sports. It's a wide foot and bicycle path along the Dreisam River behind the stadium where local football team SC Freiburg plays. The valley is flanked by the hillsides of the Black Forest.

Bouquets of flowers and messages of condolence have been posted on a tree at the site. "Thank you for the laughter and all the light you brought us," reads one. At the foot of the tree, fresh candles could be seen burning at the base last Tuesday. The student would have turned 20 on December 6.

'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.

Unsettling Events

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

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