A Berlin-based correspondent for Russian state television finds himself accused of incitement after reporting about migrants allegedly gang raping a 13-year-old girl.
Ivan Blagoy reported on Russia's Channel 1 that the Russian-German girl was kidnapped at Berlin's Mahlensdorf train station on her way to school, driven to an apartment, and raped and beaten over the course of 30 hours.
German media also reported on the case, but Blagoy's report claimed police had refused to launch criminal proceedings in an attempt to cover up the case, and quoted the teen's uncle as saying police had pressured the girl to say the sex was consensual.
To Berlin-based lawyer Martin Luithle, Blagoy's coverage was a reckless attempt to incite fear and hatred against migrants among Germany's 6 million Russian speakers, and is punishable under German law.
"What [the Russian journalist] is saying is that the state doesn't work anymore, the police don't work anymore," Luithle told RFE/RL in a telephone interview. "He tells the Russian-speaking people of Germany: 'Help yourself, the police can't protect you anymore.' This is a super-dangerous thing."
As word of the alleged rape and cover-up spread in Russia and among right-wing groups in Germany, Luithle took action by filing a criminal complaint over Blagoy's report, which he believes was fabricated.
The rape allegation comes after complaints that immigrants sexually assaulted and robbed women during New Year's festivities in the western city of Cologne were met with outrage in Germany, and portrayed by the Kremlin as evidence of a backlash over European "meddling.”
If the German prosecutor's office decides that Blagoy did commit a crime, he faces trial and a possible prison term of three months to five years. However, the initial investigation could take several weeks.
In his report, made on January 16, Blagoy said officials could not comment on camera because it was a Saturday, and therefore an off day.
Berlin police commented two days later, posting a statement on their Facebook page saying it had been determined that the girl had gone missing for a short period, but soon returned home.
"The fact is -- according to the data of our Criminal Police Land Headquarters -- there was neither a kidnapping nor a rape," the statement read.
To Luithle, the statement is evidence that "we are living in a state where law is working. We are not living in a dictatorship. Our police have officially said there was no rape and no abduction.”
Nevertheless, with anti-immigrant sentiment high, a couple hundred protesters assembled in Berlin on the evening of January 18 to express their outrage.
In the meantime, efforts to learn more about the specifics of the case have hit a brick wall. The Berlin police statement said "we expressly ask you to understand that we won't publicize more detailed information in order to protect the identity of the girl and her family."
And the girl’s aunt, who originally spoke to Blagoy on camera, told the Russian radio station RSN that the family would not comment further on the case, unless through a "qualified lawyer.”
With no fresh information, some media outlets in Russia decided to run with speculation.
"Police denied, community confirms,” one state-run NTV channel correspondent said in her January 18 report.
On January 19, RIA Novosti agency interviewed two Russian speakers who participated in the previous evening's rally in Berlin, demanding the police punish the supposed criminals.
"They couldn’t have just made up [the fact] that she was raped,” a man identified only as Aleksandr said on camera. "They showed it on the news, they wouldn’t deceive [us], anyway.”
And on social media, the message from the rally was passed on to Russian speakers by way of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
One message that was shared widely declared: “Attention! This is war!” and called on Russians in Germany to go to the streets on January 24 to protest the alleged police cover-up.
“Those who ignore this can consider that the rape is on their conscience. This is the first peaceful precautionary protest of the authorities,” the statement reads.