The volunteer initiative Moabit hilft, which spread a false story that a Syrian refugee had died in Berlin, reports having experienced a spike in death threats. Other groups have come out in support.
A week after a member of a Berlin-based charity made up a story about the death of a Syrian refugee in his care, the volunteer initiative Moabit hilft (Moabit Helps) reports receiving more and more personal threats.
"We have slid into a threatening situation," spokeswoman Diana Henniges told news agency DPA on Thursday. As well threatening emails, Henniges said she had also found a dead bird on her doorstep. "They're standing at the front door," she said. "It is getting personal."
Moabit hilft spokeswoman Christiane Beckmann said the group had received hundreds of threats to date. "They attack us personally," she told DW. "We can't go into detail on the content because it has to be assessed by the police to which extent it represents a danger, or whether it has any criminal relevance, but it's everything from insults to threats of violence to death threats."
Beckmann said the messages come mainly by email and Facebook, usually from fake accounts - but she added that volunteers quickly become inured to them. She also said that the threats had spiked following the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne and last week's hoax.
"If you work in this area, you're predestined to get threatened," she said. "But it's intensified in the last two weeks. It started after Cologne, and it reached a new peak after last week."
The Berlin police confirmed to DW that it was working on "several" criminal complaints where Moabit hilft was named as the victim, but would not comment further on ongoing investigations.
A Facebook group called Moabit lügt ("Moabit lies") was also briefly set up, which, according to a report in the "Berliner Zeitung" newspaper, accused Henniges of misappropriating donations to the group. She denied this and said she had pressed charges over the accusation. The "Moabit lügt" page has now been removed from Facebook.
In response to the attacks, a coalition of groups that work in support of refugees and against racism released a "declaration of solidarity" with Moabit hilft on Thursday, stating that the number of threats to such groups had risen significantly.
"More and more often, anti-racist initiatives and Welcome alliances have received emails with racist content and are the target of right-wing attacks, which represent a clear intimidation tactic against people showing solidarity with refugees," read the statement, which was signed by several groups, including Pro Asyl and the Berlin Refugee Council, as well as a handful of local Berlin state representatives. "The police have been notified, and charges have been filed."
Consequences unlikely for volunteer
Meanwhile, Berlin police have said that Dirk Voltz, the volunteer who initiated the false story that a refugee had died, was not subject to a criminal investigation, despite a call by Berlin Interior Minister Frank Henkel for him to face "legal consequences." "This is one of the meanest and most perfidious actions I have ever experienced," Henkel said in the aftermath of the hoax, before accusing Voltz of "poisoning" the atmosphere in the city.
On the night of January 26, Voltz told another volunteer via Facebook that a 24-year-old Syrian refugee he had taken to his home had fallen ill with a fever. He later told her that the man had died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. After the volunteer made the apparent death public via Facebook, Moabit hilft said while they had no independent confirmation of the death, they trusted Voltz, who they had been working with for several months, and therefore briefed reporters that it was true. While authorities contacted all the hospitals in Berlin in search of the supposedly dead refugee, no one was able to reach Voltz until police interviewed him later that evening.
Voltz reactivated his Facebook profile after temporarily shutting it down this week, and wrote, "OK, I made an unforgivable mistake. And publicly. I am very sorry. But who gives them the right to judge me? They don't even know me." According to local media reports, he blamed his actions on physical and mental exhaustion and desperation to bring conditions for refugees in the city to light.
Moabit hilft announced that it had severed contact with Voltz, but, in a statement following the media debacle, underlined that the humanitarian conditions outside Berlin's LaGeSo health and social affairs authority, where hundreds of refugees stand in line every day, are so catastrophic that the story had seemed plausible. "We will continue to work every day to improve the disastrous conditions at the LaGeSo," the group promised in the statement.