Deborah Cole — AFP Jan 27, 2016
Germany and Russia traded barbs over a murky case involving the alleged rape of a teenager, with Berlin warning Wednesday against “exploiting” the allegations after Moscow hinted at an official cover-up.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused Russia of trying to “inflame” Germany’s already heated national debate on refugees over the claims by a 13-year-old German-Russian girl.
German police last week rejected the teenager’s account that she was sexually assaulted by immigrants in Berlin.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday sought to lend credence to the girl’s allegations and charged that her disappearance had been “hidden” by German authorities.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Wednesday hit back, saying “there is no reason, in fact it is unacceptable, for this incident to be politically exploited”.
The teenager, identified by Russian media as “Liza”, went missing on January 11, reportedly on her way to school.
She subsequently returned and filed a police report, with her parents telling investigators she was kidnapped by three apparently foreign men at a railway station in eastern Berlin and taken to a flat where they raped and beat her.
The case sparked outrage and allegations on far-right websites and Russian media outlets of an official attempt to bury the accusations.
However Berlin prosecutors said there was no evidence that the girl was forced to have sexual relations during that period and opened an investigation against at least one man on possible statutory rape charges.
Sex with anyone under the age of 14, even if consensual, is a crime in Germany and punishable by imprisonment.
Amid ongoing tensions between Russia and the West on a range of issues, Lavrov used the occasion of his annual press conference to draw attention to the case.
“We are now working with her lawyer. He is working with her family, with our embassy,” Lavrov said.
“It is clear that the girl — absolutely, for sure not voluntarily — disappeared for 30 hours.”
– ‘Clarity, objectivity, transparency’ –
Lavrov said he regretted that news of Liza’s disappearance had “been hidden for a very long time, for some reason”.
He suggested that Europe’s refugee crisis was prompting officials to sweep pressing issues “under the carpet”.
“I truly hope that these migration problems will not lead to attempts to ‘gloss over’ reality for political motives -– that would be just wrong,” he said.
Steinmeier rejected the insinuation and said the Russian ambassador would be briefed on the established facts of the case.
“There is no reason and no justification… to use this case for political propaganda to inflame an already difficult debate on migration,” he told reporters.
Steinmeier pledged a thorough investigation and said Russian officials would do better to base their conclusions on the German probe and not on “media reports”.
Foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer earlier expressed surprise at the sudden high-level intervention from Moscow.
“We are pleased to see this strong engagement of the Russian government for clarity, objectivity and transparency in the criminal justice system,” he said, with a touch of sarcasm.
“We hope that this interest endures, not only for the case in question… but for all other cases.”
The incident came to light with Germany in an uproar over a spate of New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne allegedly carried out, for the most part, by Arab and North African men, that was initially met with silence from the police.
Last year, Germany took in nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, with Chancellor Angela Merkel under increasing pressure over her welcoming stance toward refugees fleeing war.
Tensions between Russia and the West plunged to a low point over the Ukraine crisis and Syria’s civil war.
Germany has argued for maintaining EU sanctions against Russia, imposed for fuelling a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, and regularly calls out deficiencies in Moscow’s record on human rights and the rule of law.