Deportations possible in Cologne sexual assaults, German justice minister says

COLOGNE, Germany -- Asylum-seekers could be deported if they're found to have participated in a string of New Year's sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany's justice minister said Thursday.

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Police say witnesses have described the perpetrators as being of "Arab or North African origin," but there's little solid information so far on who committed the assaults. That has been seized on by some opponents of Germany's welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict after the country registered nearly 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year.

Officials have cautioned it's important not to cast suspicion on refugees in general. Still, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview with the Funke newspaper group that "deportations would certainly be conceivable."

He said the law allows for people to be deported during asylum proceedings if they're sentenced to a year or more in prison.

"The courts will have to decide on the level of sentences, but that penalty is in principle absolutely possible for sexual offences," he said.

Police said Thursday they have now received 121 criminal complaints alleging sexual assault and robbery during the New Year's Eve festivities. That includes two accounts of rape.

They said investigators working with video footage have identified 16 young men -- largely of North African origin -- who may be suspects and are working to determine whether they committed any crimes. Authorities don't yet have names for most of the men.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Wednesday that "anyone who commits serious crimes, whatever status he is in, must reckon with being deported from Germany."

"If it turns out that refugees were the perpetrators, then they forfeited their right to be guests," Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of the conservative Christian Social Union -- the smallest party in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government -- was quoted as telling the daily Bild.

Police have faced criticism for their response, and German media reported Thursday on an internal police report that suggested officers were overwhelmed by the situation on New Year's Eve.

Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers said he is reporting to the regional government on what happened, and won't publicly give further details before a meeting Monday of the state legislature's home affairs committee.


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