Cologne attacks: First convictions but Germany awaits justice

Defendant holds a file folder in front his face in the court room in Cologne Image copyright EPA
Image caption One of the three defendants tried to hide his face in the court room in Cologne

Younis A sat with his head bent so close to the table that his lawyer had to tell him to raise his chin and look at the court.

He said little but, through his translator, this dark haired young man did offer a brief glimpse of an underworld which Germany is only just beginning to confront.

Younis is a 23-year-old Moroccan. There is no way to verify that because he says he has no papers or passport. And no way to substantiate his claims that he has a degree and some training in mechanics.

He entered the country illegally about a year ago and recently applied for asylum. He now lives in a refugee home where he says drugs are passed around - he was found with amphetamine on New Years Eve - and where he has acquaintances rather than friends.

The police have picked him up before for travelling without a rail ticket and say they have also caught him before in possession of stolen goods.

He is living in limbo, in a shadow world of petty crime. It will be months, probably years, before his asylum claim is even examined. The German authorities admit to a backlog of some 700,000 asylum applications.

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Younis admits he snatched a phone from a young woman in the crowd on New Year's Eve in Cologne. He stood briefly in the courtroom to mumble an apology in her direction. On Wednesday he became the first person to be convicted in connection with the New Year's Eve attacks. Another Moroccan and a Tunisian were also found guilty of theft.

Police have identified more than 70 other suspects. Most, they say, are like Younis: from North Africa and here either illegally or because they are seeking or have been granted asylum.

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Media captionJuergen Mathies said he was relying on victims identifying their attackers

And, like Younis, most are suspected of theft. Detectives have only arrested one man on suspicion of sexual assault. Yet nearly 600 women say they were groped, even raped, that night.

Cologne's police chief told me it was possible that many of the perpetrators will never be caught. He wearily cites lack of evidence.

Officers, including so called "super recognisers" from Scotland Yard, are largely reliant on CCTV and mobile phone footage from the night. But they have found that while the cameras can pick up a bag being snatched, they do not often capture sexual assaults in a crowd.

It is not what Germany wants to hear. The attacks have affected this country profoundly, shaken its sense of security.

A different Germany

Younis A's case took place amid intense media scrutiny. And perhaps it was unsurprising that his lawyer felt it necessary to deliver a passionate speech accusing the court of turning his client into a scapegoat.

New Year's Eve, he said, was "a terrible event with terrible consequences".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Attacks in Cologne fuelled far-right and anti-immigration movements in Germany

"People are now buying pepper spray, vigilantes run through the city and beat up foreigners. But do not hold my client responsible for that."

But, arguably, simply by committing his crime in the crowds on New Year's Eve, while all around him women were being molested, Younis A was part of a phenomenon that has altered this country.

The young woman whose phone was stolen and her friends say they were sexually assaulted too, although they cannot identify the perpetrator.

The government - previously so welcoming - has hardened its rhetoric on asylum. Ministers are trying to toughen deportation laws and want to make it all but impossible for people from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria to claim asylum.

And public perception has shifted. It does not help that Angela Merkel has failed to negotiate a meaningful European response to the refugee crisis. And that, in January, well over 90,000 people arrived in Germany seeking asylum. A recent poll found that more than 80% of Germans no longer feel the German government is in control.

It was an Afghan refugee who brought Younis A to justice. He saw the theft, helped the woman get her phone back and then testified in court. Afterwards Mr A's lawyer thanked him.

"There is a debate about foreigners going on in this country. I think it is really good that you, as an Afghan, supported the victim. I thank you for trying to protect her from my client."

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