New Year Sex Assaults in Austria Heighten Fears a Year After Cologne

As German police said they had ‘Nafris’—North Africans—under control in Cologne this year, ‘Latin-looking’ men went wild in Innsbruck. Fear and racism are on the rise.


BERLIN — In the hour around the final countdown to 2017, in Innsbruck, a cosy and secluded hotspot for Alpine sports in the mountains of Austria, a crowd of 25,000 people stood or danced in the Market Square watching fireworks to the sound of a Walzer. At the same time, something was happening, that, according to the wide-eyed chief inspector Ernst Kranebitter, “has not happened to us here before.”

As the hysteria began to peak, and the crowd grew more dense, several women around the square reported being encircled by groups of five or six men, who danced around them, pausing suddenly to grope their breasts or grab them between the legs. And in the throes of festivity, the rest of the crowd noticed nothing.

“We are assuming that, with all these assaults, we are dealing with the same group of perpetrators. The assaults were definitely systematic,” Kranebitter said this week.

The 18 women who have come forward so far, most of whom are aged between 19 and 25, described their aggressors as having a foreign appearance (“Südländischer Typ”—which translates to Latin-looking). Some had beards, and one had a missing tooth, another had spiked hair with blond tips.

The news comes as a shock to Innsbruck, a university city that is part kitsch, part conservative, and the kind of place where people like to leave their front doors unlocked. The last time Inspector Kranebitter had to comment for the national papers was when the former Miss Austria died mysteriously after falling off an observation deck in the mountains. And this time, he has even less to go on. The photographs that the victims snapped of the men turned out blurry and dim. And CCTV cameras in Innsbruck’s center aren’t used for recording.

The incident also rings back to the Cologne sex attacks last year, where, similarly, crowds of men gathered in the center of town and intentionally encircled women, cutting them off from their friends. Only that in Cologne, it was around 1,200 women who were assaulted, and they were robbed and fingered and more, as well as being groped.

While 662 women ended up filing charges for sexual assault and there were 28 reports of rape, exactly two men have been convicted—over a hundred cases were terminated because of insufficient evidence (Germany has since reformed its rape laws) or because the accused perpetrators, allegedly refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, up and disappeared.

And the consequences of all this had not been felt in Cologne alone. Indeed, the Austrian police handed out 6,000 free pocket alarms to women in the run-up to New Year’s Eve this year. “We want the population to feel safe,” a police spokeswoman said. It is not clear if any of the alarms were carried or used in Innsbruck.

One officer in Salzburg told Austrian newspaper Der Standard that his local police force had been getting a lot more calls from worried women, asking, for example, if they can still go out jogging.

This year, in place of the chaotic scenes that were unfolding in front of Cologne’s central train station 12 months ago, police tweeted a picture that showed hundreds of young, dark-haired men surrounded by police officers, about to be ID’d and warned: Behave or go home.

Accompanying the photo were the words: “#SafeinCologne: several hundreds of Nafris (short for North Africans) being controlled at the central station. Info to follow.”

“Nafri”, the police’s internal shorthand for North Africans, caused a lot of people to scratch their heads in confusion, indignation, or both, and Jan Böhnerman, enfant terrible of the German comedy scene, to tweet: “What’s the difference between a Nafri and a N***r?“)

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Police Chief Jürgen Mathies later apologized for using the term “Nafri,” claiming it is absolutely not intended as a racial slur, and rebuffing accusations of racial profiling with the argument that the police had received information about the possible intentions of some of the men arriving at the station.

But the public hot seat in Germany this week was quickly reassigned anyway: Green Party leader Simone Peter earned herself a fair share of scorn when she praised the police for their successful work, but added (completely validly): “Nevertheless a question arises about the proportionality and lawfulness, if almost 1,000 people were checked and partly detained, because of their appearance alone.”

“No, instead of public criticism, police officers deserve only one thing—a thank you,” was the Flensburger Tagesblatt’s reprimand, whilst journalist Tina Hassel tweeted, “How Weltfremd [unworldly] can you be, to criticize the police operation in Cologne now?” Even Peter’s own party members hurried to distance themselves from their boss’s words.

This year, the 50,000 who came out to ring in the new year at the Cologne cathedral and enjoy, in the words of the city’s mayor, an “atmosphere, which gives Cologners their confidence back,” were joined by 1,500 police officers, decked out in neon jackets and yellow safety vests.

Perhaps hoping to save the vibe, the Berlin artist Philipp Geist left multi-colored chalk all over the square in front of the cathedral for people to use. They did, and drew words like: “worry,” “longing,” “solidarity,” “human rights,” and “tolerance.”