When extremist organizations announce demonstrations in Germany, the authorities cringe. Following the violent orgy at an anti-Islamist rally in Cologne last October, police say they've learned some important lessons.
All three cases heard in Room 22 at Cologne State Court were open and shut on Wednesday. The judge was laconic as he read out the sentences for crimes committed on October 26, 2014, during a demonstration that will stand out in modern German history for excessive public violence on the part of right-wing extremists - and an inability on the part of the police to do anything about it.
"There was no reason for you to behave this way," said the judge to the last of the three defendants, Stefan G., who was handed a 13-month prison sentence for assault, property damage and serious breach of the peace. "And yet, you broke the law to a severe degree, so excessively, completely commensurate to your sentence."
Sven P., another defendant convicted of assault, received a sentence of 100 days incarceration or a financial equivalent based on his personal income. Thorsten V., convicted of performing the Hitler Salute, was given a sentence of 120 days.
When the sun went down on Sunday, October 26, the police had already lost complete control in Cologne
'October 26 changed everything'
"This is the kind of signal we have been waiting for," said Police Union spokesman Stephan Hegger, in response to Wednesday's unusually severe sentences.
"Fifty of our own officers were injured on that Sunday [October 26, 2014], much more than there were arrests made," said Hegger, of an afternoon that pitted some 1,300 officers against close to 5,000 hooligans and right-wingers who had gathered to demonstrate against proponents of a radical interpretation of the Koran known as Salafism.
Seventeen people were arrested on the ground amid the chaos that lasted into the evening behind Cologne's main train station. Police have been following up on 130 investigations since, concerning people like Stefan G. whose conviction on Wednesday was based solely on evidence analyzed retrospectively. Video footage showed him throwing a beer bottle at a wall of police, hitting one officer, and inflicting damage to glass by a stairwell outside the station leading to the subway.
There were numerous breaches of law that went unnoticed on that Sunday. DW reporters witnessed firsthand how demonstrators and fellow journalists were physically beaten, while riot police joined hand-in-hand watched on. Letters sent both to the mayor's office in Cologne and the state interior ministry in Düsseldorf as to the guidelines for police in such situations of public violence went unanswered.
"What happened on October 26 changed everything!" said Hegger, with regard specifically to the way police approach demonstrations now - after the Cologne HoGeSa event - announced by extremist organizations in Germany.
"Just look at how things were handled in Hannover, or Wuppertal, or even Dresden and the number of other cities where PEGIDA-inspired marches have taken place," he said, referring in Hannover [November 15, 2014] to a follow-up HoGeSa march and in Wuppertal [March 14, 2015] to a conglomeration of extremist protests that comprised Salafists, HoGeSa, PEGIDA, the anti-fascist Antifa, and around 1,000 Wuppertal inhabitants who were simply against all those protesting in their city on that particular day.
Each of these demonstrations ended without violence or many arrests, due in large part to an enhanced police presence.
"This goes for every police department in and around this state. We learned our lesson from Cologne. Never again will we be surprised like we were back then."