Some 38 people are being charged with abusing refugees in a shelter in the town of Burbach. The investigation has taken over two years after photos were leaked showing abuse that recalled the Abu Ghraib scandal.
It has taken nearly two and a half years, but one of Germany's most notorious cases of refugee abuse is finally set to go to trial. State prosecutors have charged some 38 people with involvement or collusion in the abuse of refugees at a home in the small western German town of Burbach in 2014. Some of the crimes were documented in cell phone pictures that caused widespread shock when they were released in September that year.
Details of the investigation and the charge sheets have not been officially released, because the accused have not yet been informed. But according to a report in the local "WAZ" newspaper, the suspects include 35 employees of the European Homecare company, which operated the home at the time, plus a former policeman and two local council employees in the town of Arnsberg.
The accusations against the two public officials could have political ramifications, though as yet no local politician has resigned. According to "WAZ," they are being charged with 13 counts of illegal imprisonment by neglect, because they knew that refugees were being shut inside a "problem room" and abused if they failed to follow rules in the Burbach shelter. The former policeman is facing the same charge - his wife is believed to have run a security firm that operated in the home.
A spokeswoman for a court in Siegen, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), where the charges were filed on March 1, would not confirm or deny these details to DW, but said that the charge sheet existed and that there were 38 suspects. Some 50 people were initially under investigation.
Germany's Abu Ghraib
The cell phone photos that were released in September 2014 triggered outrage in Germany, and many at the time noted similarities to the Abu Ghraib scandal that erupted when pictures of the abuse of inmates in the US military prison in Iraq were leaked in 2004.
One of the Burbach photos showed a security guard pictured posing with his foot on the neck of a handcuffed refugee lying on the floor, while another showed a refugee being forced to lie on a mattress stained with vomit.
"WAZ" reported that employees and guards at the home began locking people into a special room from the beginning of 2013. Some 59 cases have already been included on the charge sheet, while there are investigations into 65 more incidents. The illegal imprisonment is believed to have lasted several days in some cases, occasionally with the use of violence.
New rules, new operators
At the time, NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jäger declared, "We tolerate no violence against asylum seekers," and his department promptly produced an eight-point plan that enforced extra regulations and background checks on people working in social care facilities.
Ministry spokesman Oliver Moritz said these new regulations were the strictest in place anywhere in Germany. "This case had massive consequences," he told DW. "All procedures and regulations were re-examined - for example: what people are working there with what qualifications? Standards were introduced in the facilities both for personnel and for the facilities themselves."
As a result, public officials now carry out regular checks in the shelters themselves - even if they are run privately - while there are also random unannounced tests "to check whether the standards are being adhered to," said Moritz.
European Homecare would not comment to DW on the ongoing legal case, but the company has long since been replaced as the home's operator by the German Red Cross, which runs the facility through one of its local care service subsidiaries.
The subsidiary spokeswoman Ina Ludwig said professional training for dealing with asylum seekers who may cause trouble is now the norm at her facility. "Each one of our employees must provide a police-approved certificate of good conduct," she told DW in an email. "On top of this we carry out internal training that is obligatory for all our employees. Among other things, this sensitizes our team to working in an intercultural environment and covers issues like communication and de-escalation strategies as well as professional conflict management."
She added that there was an internal complaint management system in place that allows any residents to lodge concerns anonymously. Nevertheless, conditions in German refugee homes have come under increased scrutiny recently - on Tuesday, UNICEF released a report noting that many mass asylum homes lacked proper hygiene standards or child care facilities.