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Germany

Men Sentenced for Setting Fire to Rostock Refugee Complex

A German court sentenced three right-wing men on Monday for their part in a racially motivated attack against a refugee home in Rostock that shocked the world a decade ago.

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The night Lichtenhagen burned

To this day, the mention of the eastern German Baltic port city Rostock evokes memories of a crowd of East Germans cheering in front of a burning building on the night of August 24, 1992.

The searing image - thousands of onlookers cheering and applauding while a asylum seekers’ residence, home to about 100 Vietnamese was set afire by local right-wing radicals – was captured and broadcast by news programs around the world.

The incident shocked the international community and severely blemished Rostock's reputation.

Now, nearly a decade after the hate-filled crime and scandalously slow proceedings of justice, a court in Schwerin, the state capital of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Monday sentenced the last three perpetrators – on trial since last November - to suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 18 months.

Racially-motivated crime

The Rostock regional court found the three accused men (photo) - who were between the ages of 17 and 19 at the time of the crime - guilty of attempted murder and arson.

Lichtenhagen Urteil

Judge Horst Heydorn said in his concluding statement that the three accused had thrown firebombs and Molotov cocktails at the asylum seekers’ home, thereby risking the lives of its inhabitants.

Heydorn said that hatred of foreigners was the motive for the crime. He added that the three belonged to the far-right skinhead scene at the time, and that two of them have since been detained several times in connection with other racially-motivated crimes.

Getting off too easy?

Heydorn made it clear in his judgement that the three accused men would have had to reckon with more than three years in prison for charges of arson and disturbing the peace alone if the trial had taken place earlier. He said the men had benefited from the decade that had elapsed since the incident. Indeed, the hazy memories of some witnesses made conviction difficult.

Yet despite the convictions, closure still eludes Rostock. Many questions stemming from the incident still linger.

Where were the police?

In 1992, a mob largely comprising youth from the far-right scene from Schwerin and surrounding areas began targeting the "Sunflower" asylum seekers’ complex in the rundown Lichtenhagen district of Rostock with firebombs.

About 100 Vietnamese guest workers - most of whom had been brought to East Germany under the Communist regime, along with a German supervisor, Bernhard Legler - were in the complex at the time. All of them managed to escape the burning building narrowly through the roof.

But what still remains a mystery is the "sudden disappearance of the police" in Legler’s testimony. He said that after the police arrived on the spot, they vanished for two hours, leaving the "mob to its own devices".

Several people involved with the case also agree that local politicians ignored the situation, saying that the northern Rostock district of Lichtenhagen had been simmering for months before it exploded. Discontent among the locals toward the growing number of asylum seekers is said to have been palpable in the city.

Justice dragging its feet?

Another marked feature of the case has been the slow movement on the part of the court and authorities to wrap up the process and bring the men to the dock.

Last year, lawyers for the defendants argued that the case violated the European Human Rights Convention because it took nine years to go to trial. The court said it wouldconsider the length of time it took to try the men as a mitigating factor if they were convicted.

Though the Lichtenhagen case is now officially closed with the conviction of the remaining three suspects, it will be a long time before Rostock is able to rid itself of the international blemish it earned in 1992.