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Germany: Police Training Key to Curbing Hate Violence

Focus on Organized Far-Right Groups Obscures Wider Problem

(Berlin) – German law enforcement authorities need better training to effectively identify, investigate, and prosecute racist, homophobic, and other hate violence, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The 21-page briefing paper analyzes the criminal justice system’s response to hate violence in six German states. It concludes that despite improvements in the criminal justice system response to hate violence in recent years, there are gaps, with attacks sometimes not investigated adequately or prosecuted as though they were ordinary crimes. Germany’s approach to hate violence is under the spotlight following recent revelations about the failure of German authorities to adequately investigate a neo-Nazi gang implicated in the murder of nine migrants and a policewoman during a 13-year crime spree.

“These shocking murders underscore the need for a more holistic approach to tackling hate violence in Germany, especially when suspects have no apparent ties to organized far-right groups,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Better police training to identify and pursue these kinds of crimes is crucial.”

Gautier, a migrant from Cameroon who has lived in Berlin for eight years, described the police response after a 2009 attack by three men that left him hospitalized for five days: “The first statement of the investigator was, ‘Why did you not call the ambulance, but the police?’ The second question was to ask for my ID. Third if they should call an ambulance....Only later they asked me a brief question on what happened.” Although two of the three men were arrested at the scene, the case was later dropped because the suspects could not be located after their release.

According to the German federal government, 467 violent hate crimes were recorded by police during 2010. But unofficial figures from victim support organizations suggest the real number is higher. Victims’ support groups in eastern states and Berlin counted 704 such offenses during 2010, and the lack of developed victim support groups in western Germany may mask the scale of the problem there.

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper is based on field research in the six states in western and eastern Germany between December 2009 and September 2010, including interviews with victims of violence, victim support groups, criminal lawyers, and federal and state government officials, police, and prosecutors. The states are: Berlin, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia.

The briefing paper identifies a series of broad concerns with the criminal justice system response to hate violence, as well as positive examples. Not all of the concerns applied to each state, but they merit common attention from state and federal authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

One concern is that Germany treats hate crimes as a subcategory of politically motivated violence. In practice, this means that in cases in which a suspected attacker has no connection to organized right-wing groups or obvious ideological motivation, the attack risks being treated by the police as an ordinary crime.

Another is that, based on examples cited by victims and victim support groups, police may halt racist attacks but fail to take investigative steps, discouraging victims from filing complaints or focusing questions on the victims rather than the alleged attackers. Some minorities remain reluctant to report attacks to the police, and victim support groups in some states feel that police do not cooperate sufficiently with them.

An asylum seeker from Central African Republic, attacked by a group outside a nightclub in Burg, a city in Saxony-Anhalt, in 2008 together with a Saudi asylum seeker, said police had driven the two victims away from the scene but had not questioned the alleged suspects or witnesses at the time. When he and the other victim complained, they were told to be quiet.

The only person prosecuted for the attack was acquitted in March 2010 for lack of evidence.

Prosecutors and judges do not always take evidence of hate motivation into account when prosecuting and sentencing racist and other hate violence, despite having powers to do so, Human Rights Watch found. Victim support groups and lawyers said it was often left to them to raise the hate dimension of a crime.

The briefing paper contains recommendations to the authorities to improve the situation including:

  • Better training for all police and prosecutors to identify and investigate hate crimes.
  • Assignment of dedicated police liaison officers with communities and victim support groups. The Berlin State Police system of contact persons for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community can be a model.
  • Better outreach to affected communities on the outcome of investigations and prosecutions.

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