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Teenager convicted in attack on Berlin homeless man

May 17, 2017

A Berlin court has convicted a teenage Syrian refugee of setting fire to a homeless man. The attack stirred anti-migrant sentiment across Germany. Cases involving six other suspects are ongoing.

Berlin U-Bahnhof Schönleinstraße
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Kleinschmidt

Berlin's Regional Court on Tuesday sentenced one of the youths charged with setting fire to a homeless man to two weeks of juvenile detention and community service.

The 17-year-old Syrian refugee received a more lenient sentence because the court found that he was not directly involved in the incident. Rather, by his own admission, he did not act when he realized that the man had been set on fire. The teenager is expected to skip detention, however, as his pre-trial custody counted towards the final sentence.

Help for the Homeless

The trial against the remaining six suspects, born in Syria and Libya and aged between 16 and 21, is scheduled to resume on Friday. They all stand accused of attempted murder. Only the 21-year-old, who reportedly admitted to starting the fire, is being tried as an adult. If found guilty, he would face up to at least three years in prison - the minimum sentence for attempted murder in Germany.

The group allegedlylit flammable objects on fire and waved them next to the head of the homeless man who was sleeping on a bench in the Schönleinstraße subway station in the early hours of Christmas day 2016.

The man, a 37-year-old Polish national, was subsequently set on fire and was only rescued after passengers from an incoming subway carriage managed to put out the flames. The man was unhurt but all his possessions were destroyed.

Anti-migrant sentiment and stricter laws

The brutality of the crime stirred outrage, while its timing only stoked anti-migrant sentiment. The attack came just two weeks after Tunisian asylum-seeker Anis Amri plowed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring almost 50. Also around that time, police released surveillance footage from October of a man kicking a young woman down a set of stairs in another Berlin subway station, breaking her arm. Initial speculation thought the perpetrator to be of Middle Eastern or North African, although it was quickly revealed that the 27-year-old man was a Bulgarian national.

 The spate of attacks saw the government introduce new video surveillance systems. However, they also prompted discussions over the shortcomings in Germany's ability to integrate so-called "unaccompanied minors" seeking refugee status. Those discussions soon developed into calls for the men to be expelled from Germany and sent back to their home countries, regardless of the danger that could pose to their lives.

Although Germany is yet to revise its deportation laws, it has stepped up in forcefully repatriating failed asylum-seekers including, controversially, those hailing from Afghanistan. 

dm/sms (dpa, rbb)