At the beginning of the trial, eleven men are accused of raping a young woman Photo: Patrick Seeger/dpa
A woman accuses several men of rape. Among the suspects: Fugitives. To many, the case seemed clear quickly – until the trial.
It is a rainy evening in October 2018 when the situation in Freiburg im Breisgau threatens to tip over. Several thousand people march through the old town with banners and whistles, police officers patrol on horseback. Officials have barricaded Kaiser-Joseph-Strasse, the shopping mile of the Baden student city, with vans. Two camps face each other in the steady rain. One shouts "Merkel must go", they carry banners with the inscription "Protect borders, save lives". The others – almost ten times as many – strike softer tones. They read: "No to sexual violence. No to violence of any kind. No to stigmatization".
The act that led to these protests was already two weeks ago at this point. Police had delayed informing the public about what allegedly happened in a bush outside a Freiburg disco on the night of October 14, 2018: a "serious sexual assault by several suspects," according to the official press release.
The police name the nationality of some of the suspects, who at this point are already in pre-trial detention: one German, seven Syrians. However, another term quickly makes the rounds in social media, but also media reports: "gang rape".
Then a total of eleven men are charged. The charge: rape in combination with failure to render assistance. Two of the defendants are also charged with drug trafficking, and one is additionally accused of incitement to rape. What had happened that night?
June 26, 2019: Early in the morning, television crews crowded the Freiburg Regional Court. The media attention is great; in the meantime, there is even an English Wikipedia page on the "2018 Freiburg gang-rape". The security precautions are correspondingly strict: Visitors have to pass through a metal detector at the entrance; police officers with machine guns patrol the inner courtyard. The defendants are: eight Syrians, one Iraqi, one Algerian and one German. Legally, the nationalities have little relevance. But the Freiburg police had published them early on.
The defendants are led into the courtroom one after the other, handcuffed and ankle-cuffed, because one of them had used his detention examination date to jump out of the window (he was later recaptured). The alleged victim, Melanie Eber*, is a joint plaintiff. She is present only once, during her own testimony.
The prosecution begins to read out the indictment. She describes the beginning of the night, the course of which is later supplemented by witness statements.
The scene of the crime is a bush in the North Industrial Area, just a few meters from the entrance to the Hans-Bunte-Areal discotheque. A few hundred young people are dancing there on October 13, 2018. Ecstasy and other drugs are in circulation, the name of the party: "Umsonst&Drinnen". Among the guests is Melanie Eber. The 18-year-old is in the Freiburg techno club for the first time. Together with her friend Carlotta Muller, she wants to party. Both are in a good mood, buy a heart-shaped Ecstasy pill. On the dance floor they meet Majd H., a charming Syrian who speaks good German and buys the women a drink.
At the disco, he tells the women about tattoos on his thigh. Melanie Eber wants to see them. "But not here," the then 21-year-old is said to have replied. They decide to go outside so that he can drop his pants undisturbed. Carlotta Muller is said to have been unenthusiastic about her friend going outside with a stranger, but Melanie Eber reassures her, "You can trust me."
In an industrial area in the north of Freiburg lies the discotheque. Next to it the crime scene Photo: Winfried Rothermel/imago
Only hours later she is found in a parking lot behind the disco: crying, with torn pantyhose and hematomas all over her body.
For prosecutor Rainer Schmid, it all started with Majd H.. He had pulled Melanie Eber to the ground in the bushes and raped her. She had not been able to defend herself because of the drugs – possibly knockout drops were also involved. "He took advantage of the situation he had created himself," the prosecutor says. Afterward, he said, he went back inside and told others about the woman in the bushes. "Word spread around the nightclub after a while," Schmid says. The prosecutor does not use the word "gang rape" – he says the men abused Melanie Eber one after the other. She was, says the prosecutor, defenseless.
But the case is not quite as clear-cut as Schmid describes it, at least not from a legal point of view. It is true that the police found numerous traces of sperm in the bushes, which could be attributed to several defendants. But Melanie Eber as the most important witness can hardly remember anything. She remembers that she went outside with Majd H.. After that, everything is blurred. This is what she herself says, and this is also what other witnesses report.
The defendant’s version is therefore completely different: Melanie Eber had demanded sex herself while intoxicated with drugs. All other representations were based on a media prejudgement. One lawyer reports "blatant assaults" on his client in custody; a public defender calls on the judges to keep their emotions under control – an appeal she herself makes indignantly. On another day of the trial, she and the other defense attorneys report receiving threatening phone calls.
Party at the club for the first time
While the other defendants remain silent on the advice of their lawyers, Timo P. testifies on the fourth day of the trial. He had also reported himself to the police. The 26-year-old German wants to describe his version of the disco night. According to this, he had with his buddy Majd H. on the phone and the latter asked him to go outside into the bushes. "He needed help because there was a girl who wanted sex," says P. Presiding Judge Stefan Burgelin asks: Why help? "Because she was saying all the time that she wanted sex," answers P. He says Melanie Eber was lying there with her pantyhose down and seduced him into a blowjob. "We didn’t go down on her like monsters," P affirms.
Finally, he mentions an allegedly existing cell phone video, which comes up again and again in the course of the trial: "On it you can see that she wanted it," says P. Only where this video is, he cannot say. Despite an intensive search, it does not turn up.
Other digital traces are also of little help. The police recovered 365 A4 pages of Whatsapp messages and Facebook and voice messages that the defendants sent to each other. However, little concrete comes to light. "My heart bleeds," writes one of the accused after the disco night. Another warns, "Not on the phone!" A hint of guilt? Or just fear of being accused of a crime in the heated atmosphere?
To protect the young woman, the court excludes the public during her testimony. What is supposed to have happened to her is only revealed to trial observers in a filtered form. Through police officers who looked after Melanie Eber after the crime. Through a forensic pathologist and a biologist who analyzed blood and sperm traces. By disco-goers who were not in the bushes themselves, but heard about what had happened. Because Melanie Eber remembers hardly anything, it is a tough circumstantial trial in which the police do not always come off well.
For example, there is this oddity: Majd H., the man with the tattoos, had a warrant for his arrest at the time of the crime. It was not executed – for "investigative reasons," as an official testified on the witness stand. The police wanted to keep the apartment of H., who was suspected of being a drug dealer, under surveillance in order to unmask potential backers. If the police had arrested him directly, the night in the bushes would never have happened.
Did he try to kiss Melanie Eber on the way home? Or was he just asking for a kiss? It’s subtleties like this that count in the legal process
On the sixth day of the trial, Melanie’s friend Carlotta Muller testifies in court. The judge asks if she recognizes anyone in the dock. "Take a good look at the men," he says and lets the defendants stand up. Carlotta has to pass. Only Alaa A., the suspected ecstasy seller, looks familiar to her. But she is not sure.
The witness remembers much better how she finds her friend in a parking lot behind the disco. A police patrol car was parked in the immediate vicinity, called in because of a brawl, as the head of the investigation would later testify. But Melanie Eber does not want to go to the officers. "She was not yet psychologically capable of doing so," says Carlotta Muller. The following day, she then files a complaint.
On the night of the crime, they both spend the night with Muhanad M., a young Syrian who helped Melanie Eber out of the bushes. The 18-year-old even calls Muhanad M. a "savior" and an "angel" on the night in question.
But with him, too, the matter is not quite so clear. When the girlfriend makes her statement, Muhanad M. also sits in the dock. Scratch marks were found on his back, and Timo P. had also been in the hospital. incriminates him with the police. Is he really a selfless rescuer? Or was he also a perpetrator before? Did he, as the judge asks, try to kiss Melanie Eber on the way home? Or did he just ask for a kiss? It is such subtleties that count in the legal process. Carlotta Muller doesn’t remember. She says, "Melanie felt protected with him. So I went along." She also says Melanie Eber "is, I don’t want to say naive." She describes her friend as open and warm, someone who really only goes to village fairs. The night in Freiburg was the first visit to a disco, the first party with drugs.
In the course of the trial, four of eleven defendants are released from pre-trial detention. In the case of one of them, the court no longer considered there to be a risk of flight. In the case of three others, there was no sufficient suspicion of the crime. No DNA traces were found at the scene of the crime. They were taken into custody because co-defendants had incriminated them to the police. But even they only wanted to know from hearsay that the defendants were involved in the crime – pure circumstantial evidence, as the public prosecutor’s office finally admitted. Among them was Muhanad M., the "angel" with whom the girls spent the night. They are now charged with failure to render assistance.
Security measure: The defendants are led in with ankle and hand cuffs Photo: dpa
"Out with a bead".
Other things also remain unclear. Why did the bouncer not hear anything, although the disco entrance is only 15.9 meters next to the bushes? He himself blames the noise level. "People are smoking, talking, laughing," he says in court. "They’re heavily intoxicated." Then he admits that apart from him, only one other colleague was on duty on the evening in question – two security guards for around 300 guests. But he also gets entangled in contradictions. At first he says that the staff never let drunk women go home alone. Later, he says, "If someone goes outside with a bead, I don’t ask."
The security guard isn’t the only one making it difficult to clear up. Many witnesses can’t or won’t remember exactly what happened. Some revise statements they had made to the police. An orgy? He could not remember that, says the buddy of one of the accused. "Guys don’t talk about stuff like that."
A 27-year-old disco-goer who went on record shortly after the crime saying Alaa A. had sold her ecstasy is now unsure. "I need some fresh air," she tells the judge when he points out the discrepancy. And, "I’m a little annoyed with the questions." The question of whether the witness is afraid of anyone goes nowhere. She simply doesn’t know anything anymore, she says.
Only Majd H.’s ex-girlfriend is specific: she describes in court how she took the train home with Alaa A., the suspected drug dealer, the morning after the disco night. He told her that several men had raped a woman in the bushes. Question from the judge: Did he explicitly use the word "rape"? "Yes," says the witness. She also does not speak well of Majd H., her ex-boyfriend. She says he beat her and was involved in the drug business with his entire family – a statement that the defendant vigorously contradicts in court.
On the other hand, Majd H., with whom the night in the bushes began, also has a biography full of shades of gray. In the summer of 2018, a few months before the techno party, a man tried to rape a female student in a Freiburg park. Majd H. and his buddies caught the suspect and handed him over to the police. This is what his defense attorney described in court.
Like Majd H., most of the defendants have previous convictions. Muhanad M., who helped Melanie Eber out of the bushes, has also been convicted of dangerous bodily harm.
So how credible are the defendants? And what role does their nationality play? Legally, none. Socially, however, it does, as long as politics is made with the fact that refugees allegedly represent a danger. That’s why the fact that most of the defendants are refugees comes up again and again, sometimes subliminally, sometimes directly. "They will always believe the German girl, never the Syrian refugee," one of the men is said to have said during his police interrogation. Possibly a justified fear, perhaps just a clever tactic.
The psychiatric expert considers the version of the alleged victim to be credible. In view of the mixture of alcohol and the high-dose drug, it was "psychopharmacologically" not possible to act in an organized manner, to move in a controlled manner. In the end, much will probably depend on his assessment.
Meanwhile, interest in the trial has waned. It was interrupted several times because of the pandemic – some of those involved had to be quarantined. Since mid-May, the trial has continued in an event hall. The prosecution is demanding five and a half years in prison for Majd H.; the sentencing demands for the others vary between several years and acquittal. Whether the court follows the requests remains to be seen. The verdict is due to be handed down on July 23.
* We have changed the names of the alleged victim and her friend for their protection.