COLOGNE: German courts Wednesday tried three North African men for crimes committed on New Year’s Eve in Cologne when hundreds of women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed.
But the city’s police chief conceded that most perpetrators may never be caught over the spate of groping and other attacks that inflamed public debate about a huge influx of refugees and migrants.
In the first of three trials, a court in the western city sentenced a 23-year-old Moroccan man who admitted to stealing a woman’s mobile phone to a suspended six-month jail term and a 100-euro ($110) fine.
In two more cases, also dealing with property crimes not sexual assaults, a 22-year-old Tunisian man and an 18-year-old Moroccan man were accused of stealing a man’s camera in the melee outside Cologne’s main railway station and Gothic cathedral.
The mob violence inflamed tensions in Germany, which took in nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and put pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel for her welcoming stance toward refugees fleeing war.
Far-right populist groups have capitalised on the crimes by railing against “sex jihadists” and “rapefugees” in street rallies.
Cologne police have been harshly criticised for failing to stop the chaos and then denying it for several days.
The city’s former police chief Wolfgang Albers was suspended in a bid to restore public confidence in the force.
Police have received hundreds of criminal complaints over the violence.
They have identified 75 suspects, and arrested 13 for suspected property crimes but only one for sexual assault.
Police chief Juergen Mathies told the BBC most of the sex assailants may never be caught, given the poor quality of surveillance camera footage and a lack of reliable eyewitness testimony.
“The CCTV footage is not good enough to clearly identify sexual assaults,” he said.
“We can see some thefts but that’s all. We are relying on witness accounts and victims identifying their attackers.”