ARNSDORF, Germany—The video that spread so rapidly in obscure online forums last May only shows snatches of what happened. You can’t see the part in the supermarket parking lot, when the four men in black shirts pushed the Iraqi asylum seeker to the ground. They bound his wrists together behind his back with cable ties borrowed from the takeaway across the road. Then, in front of a crowd of around 20 people, they strapped him to a nearby tree and waited.
“We wanted the police to come and decide what should happen to him,” one of the men, a middle aged carpenter named Detlef Oelsner, tells The Daily Beast.
Schabbas Sale, the 21-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker, had been in Arnsdorf to get treatment at the local psychiatric hospital. He went to the supermarket that day to complain about a phone card he had purchased earlier.
Then, when he and the woman cashier began to argue and talk past each other at the checkout, someone started filming from the aisle: He is holding a wine bottle and sounds aggravated. She can’t understand what he is saying and is asking him to leave. Suddenly, four men burst into the shop, hollering raus mit dir (out with you). They throw punches at Sale and drag him outside.
“People here are used to patients from the clinic acting eccentric in the supermarket,” Martina Angermann, the mayor of Arnsdorf, tells The Daily Beast. Usually, they just ignore it.
“What a shame we need a Bürgerwehr [citizen’s army],” a female voice behind the camera murmurs at the end of the video clip.
Bürgerwehr has become a dirty and irritating word to the German authorities, especially since the New Year’s sex assaults in Cologne last year prompted a rash of vigilantism.
“It is not for Bürgerwehren or self-appointed hobby sheriffs to play at being the police,” Minister of Justice Heiko Maas warned last year, pointedly calling out those who were clicking “attend,” or otherwise loudly making plans to start patrolling neighborhoods at night, apparently on a mission to “bring back order” to inner cities.
Most of those announcements ended up being a lot of talk with little action. Still, gang violence in its most basic form seems to have taken on new inspiration: Last fall, a gang of four beat a 41-year-old acquaintance to death in front of a disco in provincial Waldbröl after getting drunk one night and going into town with baseball bats and some sort of vague plan to “hunt refugees.” Asked to explain the motive in court, one of the accused claimed that he was taking revenge for a girl who had been harassed.
In the United States, they used to call this lynching, with the reasons given often very much the same. And Germany isn’t the only European country that’s had trouble with self-appointed “hobby sheriffs” inventing themselves as “migrant hunters.” Finland has the anti-immigrant street patrol group Soldiers of Odin. And along the southern Bulgarian land border to Turkey there have been numerous incidents of vigilante groups detaining migrants, beating and humiliating them—and sometimes making a show of it in the process.
This year, prosecutors tried and failed to charge 31-year-old Peter Nizamov for “arresting“ three Afghan migrants, in the sense that he and his gang (they call themselves “Civil Squads for the Protection of Women and Faith”) cornered the three travelers, proceeded to rob them and beat them, then tied them up and shouted at them, in broken English, to go back to Turkey.
The state attorney should have had an easy time getting a six-year prison sentence for Nizamov. There was no question about the facts. He had posted a video of the event on Facebook, probably anticipating that it would be a great hit with his followers. And it was. Indeed, the flurry of “likes” was predictable—Bulgaria is mainly a transit country for refugees heading to Northern Europe, and the government itself has taken a harsh line on immigration, using the kind of rhetoric usually reserved for far-right fringe parties.
Then, in March this year, the court decided to acquit Nizamov. The police, who likely expected he would just brag the way he did when he gave an interview to national broadcaster bTV while under house arrest and confess to the charges, had done a sloppy job in gathering evidence: They hardly even bothered (and failed) to find the three Afghans to come to court and testify. And the TV confession was not replicated in court.
Krassimir Kanev, from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, says that videos like Nizamov’s have done more than incite hatred of immigrants via social media: “They reinforce widespread beliefs in Bulgaria that these activities are lawful and that these men are doing the right thing.“
Another DIY border patrol group, which calls itself the Shikpa Bulgarian National Movement, makes YouTube clips set to upbeat background music that show its members doing plank poses, practicing the “arrest” of people, and picking up litter.
In March, the group agreed to let NBC News and Channel 4 follow them for a few days, as they paraded around in the forest, dressed up in camouflage and armed with bayonets and long knives. They acted friendly and approachable and told the reporters that they had 50,000 followers and the full support of the border police—who, armed with batons and occasionally guard dogs, have themselves been accused of abusing asylum seekers trying to pass into the country. (Ziaullah Wafa, the 19-year-old Afghan man who was kiled crossing the border in October 2016, was shot by a police officer, not a vigilante.)
But in fact, Kanev says his organization hasn’t yet heard of BNO Shipka detaining any migrants. “I think they are pretending to be active,“ he tells me. “You look at these guys and you see they are just the sort of people who are doing this to tell others about it.”
After the incident in Arnsdorf last spring, Sale’s story took a tragic turn in January this year, after he went missing from his accommodation. A week before the trial, in which Sale was going to testify; a hunter discovered his dead body in the woods. An autopsy found he had frozen to death. There were no signs of external injuries, according to the report.
Detlef Oelsner, who had beaten and bound Sale last year, also likes to dabble in local politics. He lost badly when he ran to be the mayor of Arnsdorf two years ago. Oelsner was not happy about being labeled as a vigilante in the press—even now, he continues to maintain that he was showing “civil courage.”
“Of course it was unfortunate,” he says, referring to Sale’s death. He and his three buddies were sitting with their lawyer when they found out: “We were a bit shocked.”
After an awkward pause he adds, “I mean we didn’t know him personally.”
This April, shortly before the quartet was set to go on trial for their pseudo-arrest, the state attorney’s office received an email which threatened to put a bullet in the head of whomever showed up in court. Onlookers were taken aback when two prosecutors walked into the courtroom flanked by bodyguards: “I haven’t seen something like that in 30 years of being a lawyer,” one Green Party politician based in Saxony told us.
Martina Angermann, the mayor, was disappointed when the judge canceled the trial after just three hours, citing little public benefit to be had from the proceedings, which would have ended with a minimal fine at best. Meanwhile, protesters stood outside the courtroom, holding cat-sick yellow signs that read “Show trial” and “Vigilance is not a crime.”
“Arnsdorf is still divided about this case,” said Angermann.