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Sun Jul 24 22:29:10 SAST 2016

After assaults in Cologne, Merkel proposes tougher asylum laws

ALISON SMALE | 10 January, 2016 10:30
File photo of German Chancellor Merkel attending CSU party congress in Munich.
Image by: MICHAEL DALDER / REUTERS

As Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed tougher laws regulating asylum seekers in the wake of the New Year’s Eve assaults on scores of women in Cologne, the city again bristled with violent tension Saturday.

The scene near the square where the assaults occurred was a tableau of the doubts and perils coursing through Germany with the arrival of more than 1 million migrants in the past year.

In the afternoon, the police clashed with right-wing protesters opposed to Islam while leftists rallied against sexism and nationalism.

Earlier, Merkel met leaders of her Christian Democratic Union in the southwestern city of Mainz and sounded the more stringent tone she has adopted since word of the New Year’s Eve assaults spread last week.

Details remain murky, but on Friday the authorities for the first time linked asylum seekers to the wave of theft, violence and sexual assault Dec. 31. By Saturday, the number of complaints to the police about those events had risen to 379.

Merkel seems keenly aware that the Cologne episode has awoken doubts even among those who welcome the new migrants, and Saturday she proposed toughening expulsion laws for foreigners who commit crimes.

“The right to asylum can be lost if someone is convicted, on probation or jailed,” the chancellor said.

Under current German law, only foreigners convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve more than three years are deported, and only if their expulsion would not endanger their lives.

In Cologne, which has a population of about 1 million and is one of Germany’s most diverse cities, more than 2,000 police officers — equipped with water cannons, dogs and horses — were deployed Saturday to control the rival demonstrations, which the police said drew about 3,000 people. The police spent hours keeping the two sides apart, as hooded youths in both camps, many wearing masks and sunglasses, spoiled for a fight.

Tempers snapped during the rally by about 1,700 supporters of the far-right Pegida movement. The rally was punctuated by chants for Merkel’s ouster and contempt for the government. The movement opposes the arrival of mostly Muslim refugees and migrants fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa.

Setting off on a protest route negotiated with the authorities, the Pegida supporters hurled bottles and firecrackers at the helmeted police officers, who then shut down the demonstration because it had turned violent. The police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, said a police spokeswoman, Gudrun Haustetter.

At least four police officers and one journalist were injured, Haustetter said. Supporters of Pegida, the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, meandered for at least an hour afterward through the train station, loudly chanting their credo and singing the Nazi-era version of Germany’s national anthem.

Left-right tensions have marked German street politics for decades, and the police prepare carefully for such protests, pledging to uphold freedom of expression even if that requires hundreds or even thousands of officers to prevent violence.

By contrast, the Cologne police and the federal police responsible for safety at the train station and its immediate surroundings were less visible on New Year’s Eve, traditionally a time for celebrations on the banks of the Rhine, not far from the station and the city’s emblematic cathedral.

In the other rally Saturday, hundreds of women carried placards with messages like “Stop Macho Violence,” “No To Sexism, Racism, Capitalism,” or “Violence Against Women Knows No Nationalism or Religion.”

Other signs offered positive messages for Germany’s new arrivals — “Those who have fled are most heartily welcome,” said one, with a red heart drawn on it.

For all the good intentions, the jitters over the events in Cologne — and assaults on women reported in Hamburg and Stuttgart — were palpable.

Irmgard Schenker-Zittlau, 57, a city official in nearby Leverkusen, carried a message on a piece of cardboard urging Germany to preserve the rule of law. After the Cologne police failed to protect women from sexual assault, she said, she lost faith in them, even more so when they gave no clear account of events for several days. “The public has a right to know what is going on and what will be here in Germany,” Schenker-Zittlau said.

Germans who previously might have avoided one another because of political differences should pull together now, she said.

“Cologne was always open to the world, and tolerant,” Schenker-Zittlau said. “But we must get rid of this cozy attitude, whereby we all thought everything is great and regulated. Now we must really think.” Politicians should stop swapping blame, she said, adding, “In politics, society and institutions must all pull together and do something.”

Nearby, Peter Heim, a teacher at one of Cologne’s most ethnically mixed schools — pupils from 50 nations, he said, including recently arrived refugee children — held another starkly simple placard: “The dignity of a person is untouchable,” the opening sentence of Germany’s post-Nazi constitution.

Like many other Germans in recent days, Helm and his friends wondered whether the horror over the sexual assault in Cologne would turn the country against refugees. “That is the evil thing at the moment,” said Heim, a member of a Christian peace movement Pax Christi.

A woman who addressed the Pegida crowd and was introduced simply as Christiane, a mother of four, expressed sympathy for foreign women forced to flee war, and for those assaulted Dec. 31.

Having to fear for freedom “just doesn’t work,” she said.

But most speakers at Pegida’s hourlong gathering were more strident. “Islam is the cancer, Pegida is the cure,” shouted Tommy Robinson, who has appeared at previous Pegida rallies and was introduced as a leader of the movement in Britain.

Michael Mannheimer, another far-rightist, told the crowd, “Islam has one message, and one aim: world dominance.”

A placard near the speaker’s stage asserted: “Germany has survived war, pests and cholera. But Merkel? ...”

--(c) 2016 New York Times News Service

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