Berlin authorities have seized dozens of apartments and houses they claim are owned by one of the city's Arab crime networks. A new law allows police to confiscate property bought with ill-gotten gains.
Berlin's state prosecutors have claimed they have made a major sweep against one of the large organized crime families in the German capital: A "clan" of Arab-Lebanese origin, known simply by their initial R., to comply with German privacy law. Authorities confiscated some 77 properties, worth an estimated €9.3 million ($10.8 million).
At a press conference on Thursday, Berlin chief state prosecutor Jörg Raupach said that 16 people were being investigated on suspicion of money-laundering, all of whom were part of the R. family network. None of them had been arrested yet.
The investigators would not mention any details about the 16 suspects, including their nationality or family relation to one another. "But what is important for us is who profits from which crimes, and who helps bring money from crime back into legal circulation," Raupach told DW. "This is a signal to organized crime that we are trying to freeze their sources of income, or even to stop them altogether, to show that in Germany it's possibly no longer lucrative enough."
Jörg Raupach (center) said a legal amendment has made it much easier to seize the proceeds of criminal activity
The sweep came after financial crime investigators searched 13 apartments and commercial properties last Friday. Berlin's state police are reported to have identified dozens of properties belonging to the family, including some blocks of flats, single houses and apartments, and even allotments.
The state has changed the entries in the city's land register and taken over control of the bank accounts connected with them. The authorities said on Thursday that the tenants living in the properties can continue living in them, and would not necessarily be aware of the change in ownership at all.
The seizure of property was the latest development in a four-year investigation originally triggered by a 2014 bank robbery in Berlin's Mariendorf district, during which an explosion nearly destroyed an entire branch of a Sparkasse bank, and €9.16 million was stolen.
One member of the R. family, Toufic R., was convicted of the robbery, but the money was never recovered. However, investigators noticed subsequently that one of Toufic's R.'s brothers was buying property around the city, even though he was apparently living on state benefits.
This appeared to be a breakthrough for the investigators. "The difficult thing with these family structures is that you need leads. You need bank accounts where you see payments or withdrawals. It's like a giant puzzle," said Raupach. "There's a crime, money is missing, where has it gone? Working out where that money went is a tough task, but sometimes, as in this case, it leads to a partial success."
Members of the R. family have also been connected to other spectacular robberies in Berlin in recent years. Four members of the network, aged between 18 and 20, were arrested on suspicion of stealing a 100-kilo, €3.7-million Canadian gold coin from the city's Bode Museum in March 2017, though no charges have yet been filed, and the men were subsequently released. The coin was never recovered.
Raupach said on Thursday that there was currently no evidence of a connection between the coin robbery and the money-laundering investigation.
It's hard to follow the money
The property confiscation was made much easier by a legal amendment introduced last year specifically to combat organized and financial crime. "The amendment means we have more possibilities," state prosecutor Thorsten Cloidt told DW.
"It used to be that you needed a much stronger connection between the original crime and the confiscated property. Now it means we can get other properties that are not primarily connected to the crime itself."
But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Sparkasse bank will get its €9.16 million back soon. "We're a long way away from answering that question," said Cloidt.
"But this amendment is a very positive development. It's not only important for organized crime, it also plays a role in financial crimes. Loot is moved further and further away from the actual perpetrator, and then you have a problem when you need to establish a connection between the value of the property and the crime."