After sex assaults, German city braces for far-right rally
Shaken by a spate of sexual assaults blamed on migrants during the New Year's Eve celebrations, the German city of Cologne was on Saturday bracing for a rally by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement.
The Islamophobic protest, which will begin at 1300 GMT, will take place in the central square where last week hundreds of women ran a gauntlet of groping hands, lewd insults and robberies in mob violence that has shocked Germany.
Most of the assailants were of Arabic or North African background, according to eye-witnesses, police and media reports.
Far-right groups have pointed to the assaults, including two reported rapes, as proof that Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal migrant policy -- which brought 1.1 million new asylum seekers to Germany last year -- is spreading chaos across the country.
Ahead of the demonstration, there was a heavy police presence visible around the station, with hundreds of officers deployed in the area, an AFP correspondent said.
Around midday (1100 GMT), some 500 protesters, mostly women, held a noisy rally against sexist violence on the steps of Cologne's famous cathedral, banging pots and sounding whistles.
Demonstrators waved signs reading "No violence against women" and "No means no! It's the law!" while others read: "Protect our women and children."
Police expect around 1,000 people to show up, among them supporters of PEGIDA and local far-right group Pro NRW, as well as counter-demonstrators from "Cologne against rightwingers", local media said.
- 'Cologne changes everything' -
Ahead of the afternoon rally, Lutz Bachmann, co-founder of PEGIDA ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident") posted a photo of himself online wearing a t-shirt saying "Rapefugees not Welcome".
In a similar vein, the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which polls show as having 10 percent support ahead of state elections this year, claimed the violence gave a "taste of the looming collapse of culture and civilisation".
The mob violence has definitely played into popular fears, and threatened to cloud what had been a broadly welcoming mood in Germany where crowds cheered as Syrian refugees arrived by train in September.
Germany's conservative Die Welt newspaper said January 6, the day the scope of the violence became clear, "marks the beginning of a change in immigration policy" in an article outlining both "the benefits and the dangers of mass immigration from Muslim countries."
"Cologne has changed everything, people now are doubting," said Volker Bouffier, vice president of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU at a meeting late on Friday.
- Suspects include asylum seekers -
Details of what happened in the frenzied crush remain hazy.
Germany's federal police have identified 32 suspects, 22 of whom are asylum seekers, in connection with 76 offences, 12 of which had a sexual character, the interior ministry said Friday.
Cologne police, which has around 100 investigators scanning some 350 hours of video, says it has identified 16 suspects.
It was unclear how many of the suspects were veteran migrants or belonged to a scene of drug dealers and pickpockets known to lurk around the railway station, and how many were newly-arrived asylum seekers.
On Friday, criticism over the police's failure to stop the violence reached a head, claiming the scalp of Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers in a bid to "restore public confidence".
Cologne police were slow to reveal the extent of the violence -- and the politically-charged fact that many in the hostile crowd were migrants.
Critics have also accused the media of seeking to cover up the incident in a bid to be "politically correct".
- Right to stay? -
Merkel, who has so far refused to abandon her welcoming stance towards refugees, has pledged a "tough response" to anyone breaking German laws, with the issue to be discussed at a policy meeting of her conservative Christian Democrats on Saturday.
Proposals raised so far include stiffening penalties for attacks on police and emergency responders, and scrapping the refugee or asylum status of anyone sentenced to a prison term.
Under current laws, asylum seekers are only deported if they have been sentenced to jail terms of at least three years, and if their lives are not at risk in their countries of origin.
"The question that arises after Cologne is when do you lose your right to stay with us?" Merkel said late Friday.
"I have to say that for me, we must take it away sooner," the chancellor said.
"We must do this for us, and for the many refugees who were not part of the events in Cologne."
© 2016 AFP