Women’s rights activists and members of Germany’s far right demonstrated on the streets of Cologne on Saturday in protest at the New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies blamed largely on immigrants. Left-wing counter-protesters also rallied.
Earlier German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed tightening laws regulating incoming asylum-seekers in the wake of the attacks. The country welcomed more than a million asylum-seekers last year.
According to local police, some 1,700 protesters from the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement were kept apart from 1,300 counter-demonstrators in simultaneous protests outside the Cologne’s main train station.
PEGIDA members held banners with slogans like "RAPEfugees not welcome" and "Integrate barbarity?" while the counter-protesters pushed the message "refugees welcome."
The New Year's Eve assaults, which are still being investigated, were perpetrated by around 1,000 men outside the city’s train station. Many of the men surrounded the women in small groups, groping them and stealing their property, according to witness reports. There are also two allegations of rape.
The PEGIDA demonstration on Saturday was ended after the protesters threw firecrackers and bottles at the police. The crowd quickly dispersed with water cannons. No one was reported injured.
Earlier, hundreds of women's rights activists gathered outside Cologne's landmark cathedral to rally against the New Year's Eve violence. "It's about making clear that we will not stop moving around freely here in Cologne, and to protest against victim bashing and the abuse of women," 50-year-old city resident Ina Wolf told AP.
Though Merkel has decried the assaults as "repugnant criminal acts that ... Germany will not accept," they provide fodder for those who have opposed her open-door policy and refusal to set a cap on refugee numbers.
Influential Hamburg broadcaster NDR said in an opinion piece posted online Friday that such crimes threaten to push xenophobia toward the "middle of the population" — which could lead to a backlash against refugees. "And who is to blame mainly?" the editorial asked. "These young, testosterone-driven time bombs with their image of women from the Middle Ages."
Despite the harsh rhetoric, the case is not yet that clear and the investigation is ongoing.
Of 31 suspects temporarily detained for questioning following the New Year's Eve attacks, there were 18 asylum seekers but also two Germans and an American among others, and none were accused of specifically committing sexual assaults. Cologne police on Saturday said more than 100 detectives are assigned to the case and are investigating 379 criminal complaints filed with them, about 40 percent of which involve allegations of sexual offenses.
"The people in the focus of the criminal investigation are primarily from North African countries," police said. "Most are asylum seekers or people living illegally in Germany. The investigation into if, and how widely, these people were involved in concrete criminal activity on New Year's Eve is ongoing."
Witness Lieli Shabani told the Guardian newspaper the attacks appeared coordinated, saying she watched from the steps of the city's cathedral as three men appeared to be giving instructions to others. "One time a group of three or four males would come up to them, be given instructions and sent away into the crowd," the 35-year-old teacher was quoted as saying. "Then another group of four or five would come up, and they'd gesticulate in various directions and send them off again."
National broadcaster ARD called the attacks a "wake-up call" that illuminates the difficulty that lies ahead for Germany of integrating the newcomers. "But we must not give in to our fears," ARD said. "If we now take all the refugees into custody, if we erect fences around our homes and country, if we join the swing to the right that some of our neighbors have, then we give up all we have achieved."
Cologne's police chief was dismissed on Friday amid mounting criticism of his force's handling of the incidents, and for being slow with releasing information. Speaking in Mainz, Merkel said local authorities must not be perceived to be withholding information and urged that the case be "fully clarified."
"Everything has to be put on the table," she said.