The image looks more like it hailed from Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, not the sleepy western German town Burbach. Police are investigating the alleged abuse of asylum seekers in a shelter home by security staff.
German authorities are investigating at least two male security staff for apparent abuse of asylum seekers in their care in a special housing facility in Burbach. The suspects filmed and photographed their own actions on their mobile phones; investigators released one such image to the press on Sunday.
"These are pictures that most of us would associate with Guantanamo Bay," said the police chief in nearby Hagen, Frank Richter, referring to the US prison camp in Cuba. "Both security guards are grinning."
In the photo, an asylum seeker is shown lying on the floor, the boot of one man pinning his neck down. Another colleague is knelt beside the victim, seemingly posing for the camera. Some drew parallels with the images of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners at the British Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
Richter said that authorities were investigating the possibility that the alleged crimes were also xenophobic in nature, but stressed that the case was in its early stages. "So far, however, we have not found any evidence that the perpetrators belong to the far-right scene," the police chief said, adding that it was also possible that the men were out of their depth or unsuited to their work.
Further evidence still under wraps
The information was first reported by regional public broadcaster WDR, where eyewitnesses told the "Westpol" program about being beaten and humiliated by their guards. WDR said that one of its journalists had been shown smart phone videos of these instances, similar to the photo later released by police.
The senior public prosecutor in nearby Siegen, Johannes Daheim, described one of the videos as disturbing.
"There, a man is sitting on a filthy mattress covered in vomit, and is forced to lie down," Daheim said. "It's disturbing, when one imagines that these people have come to us from other countries, having already suffered from violence. They are seeking protection here, and are then subjected to such a situation. This only serves to worsen their trauma."
The Interior Minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Social Democrat Ralf Jäger, told ZDF television that authorities would press charges and ensure "that this never happens again."
WDR reported that the suspects worked for a private security company called European Homecare, one of the main operators of asylum seeker facilities in Germany. Authorities in Arnsberg are responsible for housing refugees in the region; the president of the municipal government, Gerd Bollermann, said he was shocked by the images. Bollermann said that his government would carry out more thorough checks on security staff in future, but admitted that the rising numbers of asylum seekers in Germany had put strain on security companies.
More than 65,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in the first half of 2014, according to the UN's refugee agency. Germany received more applications than any other country, logging a 50-percent increase on the numbers for the same period in 2013. In a response to rising applications from war-torn countries like Syria, the German government recently declared western Balkan countries - formerly the site of thousands of annual applications from Roma and Sinti peoples - officially "safe," meaning all applications are automatically rejected.
Police chief Richter said that investigators had already spoken to a total of 700 refugees in Burbach, finding indications of possible crimes in five cases, three of which involved security guards.