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Alleged Racial Attack Becomes Political Issue

DW staff (jam)April 24, 2006

An attack on an Ethiopian-German in the city of Potsdam has turned into a political tussle, with officials and organizations bickering over the attack's motives, public remarks and who should be investigating the case.

Demonstrators march in Potsdam against xenophobiaImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Federal investigators appear to be getting closer to tying up many of the loose ends around the brutal Easter Sunday attack on an Ethiopian-born German that almost killed him. But charges and counter-charges have been flying fiercely among politicians and interest groups as a heated debate over racism has broken out.

A war of words has broken out between Jörg Schönbohm, the interior minister of the state of Brandenburg, where Potsdam is located, and Germany's top federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, who is leading the investigation.

Brandenburg's Interior Minister Jörg SchönbohmImage: AP

Schönbohm has criticized Nehm for sending in federal investigators to take charge of the investigation, saying it was "excessive" and gave the impression that the attack had put Germany's internal security at risk. He has also questioned the assumption that there was a racist motive behind the attack.

"(Nehm) has made the thing a political issue and helped stigmatize Brandenburg," Schönbohm told the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "He's caused a considerable amount of political damage."

Prosecutor shoots back

That was just the latest in a series of verbal salvos between the two men. On Friday at a press conference, Nehm complained in what was seen as a clear reference to Schönbohm that "interior ministers' statements are not especially helpful" to the investigation. According to people close to Nehm, Brandenburg's interior minister is "really getting on his nerves," the newsmagazine Der Spiegel wrote.

The attack comes at an especially sensitive time for Germany, which is about to host soccer teams and fans from around the globe who will be in the country for the soccer World Cup this summer. It is likely federal prosecutors wanted to send a clear message to both Germans and foreigners that solving and preventing attacks such of these are a high priority for the government.

Some left-leaning politicians have stepped into the fray, defending the decision to put the investigation on a federal level and criticizing Schönbohm's public doubts about the motive behind the attack.

Kay Nehm
German Federal Prosecutor Kay NehmImage: AP

Nehm made it "clear that a possible far-right, xenophobic background to the violence in Potsdam will be prosecuted with all the means at the state's disposal," Volker Beck, a prominent Green politician, told the Internet news site Netzeitung.

Niels Annen, a member of the Social Democratic Party's executive committee, also expressed dismay over Schönbohm's remarks. "We cannot deny the fact that attacks on foreign citizens in Germany are part of everyday life in parts of our country," he said, adding that Nehm had sent out an important political signal by taking on the case.

Germany's Central Council of Jews also weighed in, saying if Schönbohm didn't recognize that there were racist motives behind the attack, "he desperately needs some private tutoring."

Racist motive?

Whether the 37-year-old Ethiopian-German, only identified in the media as Ermyas M., was the victim of racists was questioned in an article in the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper. According to the paper, an eyewitness has said the victim provoked his attackers, calling one of them a "pig" and trying to kick him. All three men involved in the incident are reported to have been drunk at the time.

Fremdenfeindlicher Mordversuch in Potsdam Gedenken Blumen
Neighbors and friends of German-Ethiopian Ermyas M. gather next to the scene of the attackImage: AP

The paper also reported that contrary to some previous accounts, the victim suffered no broken ribs or other wounds on his upper body. That could indicate that the attackers left the scene after one punch to the face which damaged Ermyas M.'s eye.

However, a recording of the incident on the voicemail box of the victim's wife supports the theory that race played a role. The attackers are heard using racist language in threatening the Ethiopian-German, who has shown some improvement but is still in a coma more than one week after the attack.

Federal minister in the fray

Germany's Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has also been roundly criticized for remarks he made in the case. Like Schönbohm, he also cast doubt on a racist motive, saying that "blond, blue-eyed people are also victims of violence."

Wolfgang Schäuble bei der Eröffnung der Afghanistan Konferenz
Germany's Minister of Interior Wolfgang SchäubleImage: dpa

On Sunday evening, Schäuble distanced himself from his remarks. "I didn't need to describe (the situation) with those two terms," he said in a television interview, adding: "We must fight with determination every form of extremism, violence and xenophobia."

Schäuble also backpedaled from previous statements that seemed to indicate racism in eastern Germany was a problem that could be traced back to the GDR era. He had earlier said East Germans had had little experience with foreigners due to the closed nature of GDR society.

On Sunday, the interior minister was quick to qualify his remarks, saying he did not mean that former GDR citizens were more prone to exercise violence against foreigners than others.

Whoever accused him of such an attitude was "shameless," he said.