Nine Iraqi refugees have been arrested in Austria on suspicion of gang-raping a 28-year-old German woman in a case that could ignite debate of immigration and crime ahead of this Autumn’s presidential election re-run.
The arrest of the nine Iraqis, all either asylum seekers or recently granted asylum, comes as Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party seeks to over-turn the result of June’s presidential election after mounting a successful legal challenge to pave the way for a re-run on October 2.
The arrests were made over the weekend, police confirmed, after DNA evidence and CCTV camera footage was used to build a case against the nine asylum seekers.
The woman filed the complaint on January 1 but it took nearly eight months of what Austrian police called a “protracted and difficult” investigation before the arrest were made.
The alleged attack took place on New Year’s Eve at an apartment in Vienna where the woman, who was visiting from the German state of Lower Saxony, was visiting to celebrate the New Year with a friend.
The suspects range in age from 21 to 47, said Vienna police spokesman Paul Eidenberger. “There is no doubt about the gang rape according to the biological traces,” the police spokesman told Der Spiegel.
“The investigations were difficult and protracted. On the trail of the suspects, investigators came by DNA material, interviews with witnesses and images from surveillance cameras.”
They are alleged to have taken the woman from Vienna’s central Schwedenplatz and then assaulted her in an apartment where two of the suspects lived, between the hours of 2am and 6am.
The men – five of whom were arrested in Vienna, three in Styria and one in Lower Austria – have all denied the accusations and police added they were unable to say how many of the men had participated in the alleged attack, and how many were possible accessories in the case.
The woman, who had been drinking and suspects she was drugged, had no recollection of being taken to the apartment, the police added.
“The presumed perpetrators are likely to have taken advantage of the female victim’s high level of inebriation,” they said in a statement.
On news websites in Austria some readers demanded the men be “immediately deported” if they are convicted of the rape.
The news of the attack comes as Austria prepares for a re-run of its presidential election which last June saw the far-Right Freedom Party losing out to a Green Party candidate by less than one per cent of the vote.
Although Austria did not experience scenes like those in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of women told police they had been groped, attacked and robbed by mobs of men, immigration and crime has become a super-sensitive political issue.
Although Austria’s government initially supported Angela Merkel’s open immigration policies, it has since adopted a tougher line, organising a conference in February to close the so-called ‘Western Balkan route’ by which refugees were streaming in to Europe.
Immigrants have been accused of isolated sexual and other attacks committed in Austria, and the far-right Freedom Party, which is running first in opinion polls, has seized on cases in which immigrants have been accused of crimes to press for stricter immigration policies.
Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, has further stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, promising to ban burqas and take his country out of the European Union if Turkey is ever allowed to join.