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Officials Say They Failed Women in Cologne Attacks

A banner with flowers is placed on the steps to the Cologne cathedral reading in English and Arabic "sexual harassment against women will not be tolerated", New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne were blamed largely on foreigners. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
A banner with flowers is placed on the steps to the Cologne cathedral reading in English and Arabic "sexual harassment against women will not be tolerated", New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne were blamed largely on foreigners. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Officials Say They Failed Women Attacked in Cologne
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Police, government officials and journalists say they failed the women attacked in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve.

Groups of young men sexually attacked and robbed women that evening. The attacks occurred outside Cologne’s main train station.

Prosecutors said police received 945 complaints from the victims of the attacks. More than 430 were for sex crimes. Prosecutors named 35 suspects, 32 of them from North Africa.

The attacks reduced support for immigration in Germany.

A poll by YouGov, a European polling agency, found 62 percent of Germans believe there are too many asylum seekers in Germany. That is up nine percentage points from before the Cologne attacks.

The Cologne attacks led to painful debates about government, news media and police.

Some questioned whether Germany should accept more immigrants. There have been large anti-immigration demonstrations in Cologne and elsewhere in Germany.

Police were criticized for what many victims viewed as a slow and inadequate response to the attacks.

News organizations were asked why they took so long to provide full coverage of the attacks.

Lutz Frühbrodt is a professor of journalism at Wurzburg-Schweinfurt University. He said some German news organizations failed to report that most attackers were from the Middle East and North Africa. He said they did not want to raise opposition to immigration.

But others said the German press encouraged anti-immigrant feelings. They reported over and over that the attackers were from outside Germany, wrote Free University of Berlin Professor Joachim Trebbe. Normally the German media does not report the ethnic or national background of accused criminals, he said.

The Cologne attacks also produced charges of sexism and “blaming the victim.”

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker was widely criticized after she said young women should make themselves less of a target. She also said young women should “keep a certain distance” from groups of young men.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said her comments were not acceptable. “It is not women who bear responsibility, but the perpetrators,” Mass wrote on Twitter.

There have been admissions from various officials in recent days that the attacks were not handled well.

An internal police report found that police on duty New Year’s Eve in Cologne “could not cope” with the attacks. Most took place in the square in front of the city’s main train station.

It said women were “forced to run the gauntlet” of gangs of drunken men who groped them, pulled their hair and ran off with phones and wallets.

Some news organizations apologized for not giving the story much attention during the first hours and days after the attacks.

Elmar Thevessen, deputy news editor of German public broadcaster ZDF, said his news organization waited too long to air a story.

The mayor of Cologne took a much tougher stand against the attackers.

“Women were sexually harassed in a massive way,” she told Spiegel Online. “I always thought these were the kinds of dangers people faced in very distant countries. It's not something I could have imagined in Germany. We cannot accept it.”

Syrian refugee Basheer Alzaalan says the attacks by fellow immigrants in his home town of Cologne makes him angry. He says Germany offered him a safe home after he left the civil war in Syria.

“Germany for the Syrians was some kind of mother, and at the head of that, (Chancellor) Angela Merkel,” he told VOA in an interview at a Cologne cafe.

Alzaalan says he hopes people understand most refugees are good people. He taught English in Syria before he fled to Germany with his wife and two children.

He wrote in the Guardian that he and his family fled their home in 2014 after terrorist groups took over.

"I feared for the lives of my wife, our three and four-year-old daughters and our unborn son," he wrote. "Bombs had been dropping where we lived on a daily basis."

Alzaalan says he wants to help Germany help refugees adjust to German life.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Henry Ridgwell reported on this story for Bruce Alpert adapted this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

complaint – n. a formal charge saying that someone has done something wrong

prosecutorn. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty

inadequate -- adj. not enough or not good enough

encouragev. to make (someone) more determined, hopeful, or confident

bearv. to accept or endure something

handlev. to touch, feel, hold, or move (something) with your hand

gauntletn. situation in which someone is attacked by many people

drunkenadj. a person who has had too much to drink

gropev. to touch a person in an unwanted sexual way

walletn. a small folding case that holds money and credit cards

harassv. to annoy or bother someone.

massiven. very big