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Berlin Christmas market victims' families criticize Germany

March 1, 2017

The family of the Italian victim of the Berlin Christmas market terrorist attack has said it was neglected by German authorities in the aftermath. Berlin's victim commissioner said all procedures were being reviewed.

Deutschland Berlin Nach Anschlag auf Weihnachtsmarkt
Image: Getty Images/S. Loos

The family of Fabrizia Di Lorenzo, a 31-year-old woman who was killed in a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market while shopping for presents, told Italy's "Corriere della Serra" newspaper this week that the authorities had been "insensitive, absent, badly organized, and incompetent" during the 72 hours they spent in Germany following the attack.

Di Lorenzo's family told the paper it had taken three days to receive confirmation that their daughter had been among the 12 victims of the attack in Berlin's Breitscheidplatz square, carried out by rejected Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri.

They believe it should have been possible to identify Fabrizia within 24 hours, based on a photo provided by her employer, the German logistics company 4flow. But federal police procedure requires identification by DNA and fingerprints in the event of a catastrophe.

Attack in Berlin

Di Lorenzo's mother Giovanna and brother Gerardo made their way to Berlin on the night of December 19, after hearing of the attack and trying to reach Fabrizia on her cell phone. According to the Italian paper, a stranger picked up the phone and told Gerardo in English that he had found the phone at the Christmas market and was taking it to the police.

Deustchland | Anschlag mit LKW auf Weihnachtsmarkt in Berlin
Twelve people were killed in Berlin on December 19 after a truck was driven into a crowded Christmas marketImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

The Di Lorenzos said they were left in the dark by authorities in Berlin for "three endless days, without psychological help, during which we almost went crazy with worry," before adding that other victims' families had had similar experiences. Apart from Fabrizia, the 12 victims included seven Germans, people from Israel, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, as well as the Polish truck driver who Amri is thought to have killed after hijacking the vehicle. Around 55 more people were injured.

The reputations of many German authorities and institutions have not emerged well from the aftermath of the attack.

Intelligence agencies were criticized for having failed to track Amri before the attack, even though he had been identified as a potential threat. The Berlin Charite hospital was criticized for sending victims' families bills for the autopsies of their loved ones within days of the attack, while Berlin Mayor Michael Müller faced criticism for waiting two months before sending out condolence letters.

There was also some confusion over the financial compensation for the victims' families - since the attacker used a truck, it was initially classified as a road incident rather than a terrorist attack, and it took the intervention of Justice Minister Heiko Maas to ensure that victims would still be eligible for compensation. This too has since been resolved, with victims families now in line to receive substantial sums from the federal German government.

Mistakes and apologies

Roland Weber, the Berlin state commissioner for victims of violent crime, acknowledged that mistakes had been made, but said that apologies had since been made by all involved, and measures put in place to correct procedures. He also pointed out that German President Joachim Gauck had recently met with all the victims' families to hear their concerns.

Berlin Virchow-Klinikum der Charite - Gauck besucht verletzte nach Anschlag
President Gauck met with the victims' families to hear their concernsImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

"Yes, there were some mistakes in the ensuing days, especially when it came to communication," Weber told DW. "No one is denying that and everyone regrets it. That is now all being investigated - why did the people not get information?" 

In particular, Weber said that the coroners' decision to only inform the families once they were absolutely certain of the victims' identifies should have been better communicated. "Of course now in retrospect it is clear that this was very bad - something like that simply shouldn't happen," he said.

This was brought up at the meeting with Gauck, and the president reportedly then questioned Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere as well as the Berlin state government, who promised to review official procedures.

State and federal confusion

Weber said he had personally looked after the Di Lorenzo family in Berlin and since. "I can understand that they are not satisfied, mistakes were made," he said, though he denied that no translator had been made available, since he had himself been in contact with the Italian embassy, whose officials had been present "from the beginning."

Weber also explained that one of the sources of the ill treatment was the lack of immediate clarity over responsibility. "In Germany, the federal state prosecutor is responsible for investigating terrorist attacks," he said. This meant that while Berlin state police were involved in the initial operation, the federal police took over in the hours that followed.

That apparently created a "gap," Weber said, as responsibility for informing victims was handed over to federal authorities, who initially needed time to "work out what was going on." The federal authorities then took a very officious approach, which required certain international standards about victim identification to be met before families were informed. "Bureaucratically, everything was correct, but the human element fell by the wayside," Weber said.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight