The arrest of a 17-year-old Afghan refugee suspected of raping and killing a young German medical student turned into a political maelstrom Monday, with opponents pointing to Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision last year to welcome more than a million migrants into the country.
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel tried to calm the brewing storm by insisting it was unfair to blame all refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq for a single criminal act, but the fallout from the slaying of 19-year-old Maria Ladenburger nonetheless left the government on the defensive.
Merkel allies warned the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has become a powerful new political force on the far right, against trying to use the case to score political points as the September 2017 election campaign is getting underway.
That didn't stop AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen from bluntly blaming Merkel and Gabriel, saying they deserved "a major share of the responsibility" for the killing.
Opponents of Merkel and her refugee policies also attacked the nation's most popular news broadcaster, ARD's flagship Tagesschau program, watched by some 10 million viewers, for opting initially not to cover the arrest on the grounds that it was a regional, not national, issue.
Newspapers across Germany reported a high volume of critical comments about refugees and the media from users, and Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin said that 40% of the user comments submitted were not suitable for publication—four times the usual number of comments that did not meet its decency standards.
"We cannot allow this abominable act to be abused for rabble-rousing and conspiracy theories," Gabriel said on Facebook. "Everyone is aware that a horrible crime can be committed by a refugee just as it can be by someone born in Germany. There were also horrific crimes long before any refugees had arrived from Afghanistan or Syria."
Merkel, who recently announced plans to run for a fourth term in September, has seen her popularity plunge in the last year in large part due to her staunch refusal to accept demands from her party's right wing to limit migrants entering the country to 200,000 per year.
She did not comment on the slaying in Freiburg and has remained determined to keep Germany open to refugees. She drew criticism from her party for shaking hands with a number of young refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere at regional party meetings in recent weeks.
Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters on Monday: "The assailant must be punished with the full force of the law. But we shouldn't forget that we're talking about the possible act of one Afghan refugee—not entire groups of Afghanis or refugees."
A close Merkel ally in her conservative Christian Democrat party, Julia Kloeckner, also said it was wrong to blame all refugees: "An atrocity like this can be committed by a German or a foreigner," she said. "You can't see what's in anyone's head."
The killing in Freiburg, a bucolic university town of 220,000 on the rim of the Black Forest near Switzerland and France, also reignited public fears of the perils of allowing so many refugees fleeing war, turmoil and poverty into the normally tightly controlled country with at best cursory checks over the last 15 months.
Germany has been hit with three relatively minor incidents this year involving migrants: a knife attack against a police officer, an ax attack against tourists on a train and a bungled suicide bombing in which only the attacker from Syria was killed.
Fears linger over incidents of sexual abuse of women and groping attacks by foreign men on New Year's Eve in Cologne and dozens of other cities.
"This crime will only confirm the fears that a lot of people in Germany have that they're not safe anymore in their own country," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. "All the elements of fear are on hand: once again, it was violence against a woman; once again, it was a crime by a refugee; and once again, the country's most important news show didn't report it. It only seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of some that the mainstream media don't want to report disagreeable kinds of stories about refugees."
Foreign diplomats, party officials and political scientists have warned that any sharp upturn in crimes by refugees or their involvement in a major terror attack could severely damage if not destroy Merkel's reelection hopes.
The killing of Ladenburger, whose father, Clemens Ladenburger, is a top-ranking German official working for the European Commission in Brussels, had been in the national news for several weeks after her body was found in the Dreisam River in Freiburg on Oct. 18. She was a top student and had volunteered as a worker in her spare time at a refugee shelter near her dormitory.
She was attacked while riding her bike home from a university party about 2:30 a.m., police said. They said they found DNA evidence, on a strand of hair and a black scarf, linking the suspected killer to the scene after weeks of work at the crime scene.
The suspect was not named by authorities because he is a juvenile.