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Germany

Pickpocket ringleaders go on trial in Berlin

German prosecutors are hoping to break an international petty crime ring in what is being described as the biggest European court case against organized pickpocketing. Police say the problem has been growing in Berlin.

Two Romanians went on trial in Berlin on Friday for allegedly sending their children to Berlin to pickpocket as part of an international organization. It is the third in a series of trials of alleged ringleaders as police in the nation's capital crack down on petty crime.

The 37- and 35-year-old Roma couple, who chose not to testify as the trial began on Friday, were accused of phoning their 12 and 16-year-old children daily to threaten and cajole them into pickpocketing in the city's train stations. The couple are also said to have visited Berlin to take and check the money that was stolen and transfer it back to Romania. They were arrested in Romania in April and extradited to Germany around a month later.

They are being charged with a total of 34 thefts carried out between September 2013 and March 2014, as well as several attempted thefts. A similar trial in June this year led to the conviction of three people - a couple and their son - who were sentenced to up to three-and-a-half years in jail. Another couple was sentenced to similar jail terms in July.

Köln Hauptbahnhof Vorplatz Dom (Reuters/W. Rattay)

Pickpockets have been active in Cologne

Increased thefts

Pickpocketing has been steadily growing in Berlin - more than 40,000 pickpocketing incidents were reported in 2015, compared to less than 10,000 10 years ago (though that statistic may be distorted by the fact that petty crimes are now much easier to report, thanks to the police's internet portals).

In response, German and Romanian police have been involved in an escalating crackdown on international pickpocket rings.

Several properties in Berlin and Romania were raided simultaneously in early October, which resulted in 10 arrests and the identification of 44 suspects. International arrest warrants were issued for seven more people. At the time, Romanian police put the value of the takings at 225,000 euros ($245,000).

Much of the police attention has been on the town of Iasi, in northeastern Romania, where three large families of Roma are located. In 2013, some 79 suspects from the town were identified, including seven alleged ringleaders and 54 minors who are said to have traveled to Berlin in teams.

Cracking international pickpocketing rings has traditionally proved to be difficult, Berlin police spokesman Thomas Neuendorf explained - which makes the current trials a significant sign of success. "You have to prove that it is happening repeatedly and in an organized way," he told DW. "It's a bit of a coincidence that there are now several trials happening against these organized gangs, but this was the aim of the investigations."

Deutschland, Berlin Hauptbahnhof (picture alliance)

Pickpockets often cause a commotion by stopping an escalator

Tricks and distractions

The methods employed by such pickpocketing teams are varied - some use distraction tricks, others operate by crowding victims. "Usually one perpetrator makes the opportunity possible - they block the door to a bus to create a little jam, or they switch off an escalator to create a commotion," explained Neuendorf. "Then a second perpetrator arrives to commit the actual theft. He takes the things out people's bags, but then immediately passes them on to a third person so that they don't have any loot on them if they get caught." The thieves themselves, he added, often see very little of the money - most is taken by the ringleaders.

The gangs also evade detection by moving cities often - especially if too many members have been caught - and by using minors who are often too young to be prosecuted, though pickpockets of all ages have been caught ("We've had eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds," said Neuendorf). This also makes it difficult for authorities to guess exactly how many members belong to a single organized gang. Such gangs, he underlined, concentrate on theft - they are rarely involved in other organized criminal activity such as drug-dealing.

Groping and sexual assaults are also occasionally used as distractions for petty theft (though this is not part of the current charges) - as was the case during the New Year's Eve attacks that caused a media furore in Cologne in January. In Berlin, at least, there has been a marked decline in such incidents, said Neuendorf, after the police created a special taskforce: "We were able to carry out a lot of arrests, so that this phenomenon has been reduced."

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