Germany Cologne sex attacks: Mayor Henriette Reker ridiculed over comments to women

January 7, 2016 4:00 am

 Cologne mayor Henriette Reker attend a conference about the attacks. Photo / AP

Amid widespread shock over a string of sexual assaults in this
cosmopolitan German city on New Year’s Eve, the response was divided
Wednesday: blame the police or chide the victims, deport criminal
foreigners or prevent migrants from entering the country in the first
The reaction in Cologne reflects a broader debate as
struggles to reconcile law and order with its new-found role as a
haven for those seeking a better life.
descriptions of the perpetrators as of “Arab or North African origin”
were seized on by those calling for an end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s
open-door policy toward people fleeing violence and persecution ” even
as authorities warned they don’t know if any of the culprits are

Adding to the controversy were remarks by Cologne’s mayor,
Henriette Reker, suggesting that women can protect themselves from
strange men on the streets by keeping them “more than an arm’s length”
away – words that were widely ridiculed on social media Wednesday for
putting the onus on the victims.
At least 106 women have come
forward to file criminal complaints of sexual assault and robbery during
the New Year’s Eve festivities, authorities said, including two
accounts of rape.

People gather at Cologne's main station on New Year's Eve. Photo / AP
People gather at Cologne’s main station on New Year’s Eve. Photo / AP
The attacks were seized on by opponents of Germany’s welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict.
is where Merkel’s irresponsible immigration policy will lead us,”
declared Thorsten Craemer of the far-right fringe party ProNRW, which
staged a small rally in front of Cologne’s main train station, the site
of the attacks. “There will be battles for resources, confrontations far
worse than what we’ve experienced on New Year’s Eve.”
His fellow
activists ” fewer than 10 in total ” were far outnumbered by
counter-demonstrators shouting them down with slogans such as “East or
West, down with the Nazi plague.”
Among the counter-protesters
was Antonia Rabente, a 26-year-old student and union activist who
expressed anguish at the assaults.
“On the one hand there’s a
feeling that what happened is wrong and many people are concerned about
this. But where people are split is in how to respond,” she said. “I
think it’s important to keep the focus on the women who were affected.
They (mustn’t be) misused for attacks on the right to asylum.”
was one of the few European countries to welcome the influx of refugees
last year. Many Germans cheered as weary Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis
stepped off trains in Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg last summer and tens
of thousands have volunteered to help the new arrivals.

People gather at Cologne's main station on New Year's Eve. Photo / AP
People gather at Cologne’s main station on New Year’s Eve. Photo / AP
That euphoria has given way to the realization that
integrating the nearly 1.1 million people who came to Germany last year
will be a long and difficult task, even as many Germans have been
heartened by Merkel’s mantra, “We can do this.”
Gudrun Sauer, a
retired civil servant, said it would be wrong to blame the latest wave
of refugees for the assaults. “The people who come here and went through
such hardship, they’re hoping for a better future,” she said. “I don’t
think they’d risk doing something like that.”
But like her
husband Walter, she questioned whether German law is too lax on criminal
foreigners and said the police should have intervened sooner to prevent
the New Year’s Eve assaults.
Police initially failed to mention
the assaults in their report the following morning, describing the
festivities as “largely peaceful.”
Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang
Albers acknowledged the mistake, but dismissed widespread criticism that
officers were overwhelmed and reacted too slowly in protecting the
“When the situation became tense in front of the train
station ” there were a thousand men who were completely out of control ”
the police cleared the square,” he told public broadcaster ARD. “It was
a difficult operation (and) the police did an exemplary job.”

Police officers patrol in front of Cologne's main station days after the attacks. Photo / AP
Police officers patrol in front of Cologne’s main station days after the attacks. Photo / AP
Witnesses told a different story. German media quoted
dozens of women who said they were followed by groups of men who groped
them, tried to pull off their clothes and stole valuables.
On Wednesday, police said the number of women alleging they were sexually assaulted or robbed had risen to 106.
least three-quarters of the criminal complaints filed included an
alleged sexual assault, Cologne police spokesman Christoph Gilles told
The Associated Press, adding that “in two cases we are investigating
crimes that amount to rape.”
He said police had arrested four suspects.
a tabloid newspaper based in Cologne, suggested Albers should resign.
“The reputation of the Cologne police has taken a nationwide hit,” the
paper said in editions hitting newsstands Thursday.
Among the
angles police are investigating is whether there are any links to
similar crimes committed over the past two years by men suspected to be
of North African origin in the nearby city of Duesseldorf, some 25 miles
(40 kilometers) away.
Gilles, the police spokesman, urged more victims to come forward, saying they would be treated “very sensitively.”
over authorities’ treatment of women were further inflamed by Cologne
Mayor Reker’s remarks Tuesday when asked what women can do to protect
“There is always the possibility of keeping a certain distance, more than an arm’s length” from strangers, she said.
lashed out on social media at Reker ” who was sworn into the job less
than a month ago ” saying the remarks amounted to blaming women for the
attacks and were ludicrous considering the crowded streets on New Year’s
Reker said Wednesday that she regretted any
misunderstanding, but had merely been pointing to existing prevention
and counseling programs in response to a journalist’s question.
to the city’s alcohol-soaked Carnival celebrations next month, Reker
was also quoted as saying that misunderstandings with men could be
avoided if women did not “hug everyone who smiles at them.”

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