By Joel Dullroy, Radio Spaetkauf
A British investment company is behind the escalating conflict between Berlin’s former squatter community and the city’s police, resulting in illegal evictions, demonstrations and car burnings.
Tensions have flared in recent months between police and the residents of Rigaer Straße 94, a former squat in the district of Friedrichshain. The building is owned by Lafone Investments Limited, a one pound company with registered offices in London.
More than 300 police raided the property on June 22 and evicted some of the tenants, including a bar called Kadterschmeide run by a community association. They were acting on a request by Lafone Investments Limited, which sought police protection for builders hired to renovate the property.
On Wednesday July 13 a Berlin court found the eviction was unlawful. There was no official eviction order in place to justify the removal of the tenants and their property. The police had effectively participated in an illegal property invasion on behalf of a foreign investor.
The court decision followed a fiery weekend of demonstrations and retaliatory car burnings in Berlin. On Saturday July 9 an estimated 3500 people marched through Friedrichshain demanding an end to police actions against Rigaer Staße residents. Around 1800 riot police followed the demonstrators and kettled them on Warschauer Brücke with a water cannon truck positioned at one end, and used tear gas on the crowds. Some demonstrators set off flares and threw cobblestones at the police.
An official statement from the police claimed 123 officers were injured, although only one required hospitalization. The police definition of officer injury can include heat stress and reaction to tear gas. There were eleven car burning reported across Berlin on the same evening. Car burnings have long been used as an anti-gentrification tactic by the so-called autonomous scene. They have flared again in recent months in retaliation against police actions in Friedrichshain.
Opposition politicians in Berlin have critized the city’s police minister, Frank Henkel from the CDU, who ordered the crackdown on Rigaer Straße and the autonomous scene. Rather than fostering peace, Mr. Henkel and his police department now stand accused of fermenting conflict. Following the court order, Mr. Henkel now appears to have supported an unlawful eviction on behalf of the property owner.
However, the true identity of the building owner remains unclear. The property was purchased in 2014 by Lafone Investments Limited. Company registration documents state that company’s single one pound share is held by Mr. John Dewhurst, a London-based lawyer. He was also listed as the sole company director until July 8, when he removed himself from the position. His name appears in the Panama Papers as a shareholder of Platinum Investment International Corporation, a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands. Mr. Dewhurst has told German media that he is not the real owner of the company or building, but merely acting on behalf of the anonymous owner. In Berlin, the owner is represented by Hausverwaltung Centurius, a building management company.
Although Rigaer Straße 94 is often reported to be a squat, it is in fact a normal and legally occupied residential building. The property was originally squatted in 1990, but the residents signed contracts to rent their apartments in 1992 with the then-owner, a public housing company. The building was sold to a private owner in 2000, and again in 2014 to Lafone Investments Limited. In 2015 the property’s new owner began attempting to evict the tenants, sparking the current conflicts.
For more background to the Rigaer Straße police raids, listen to Radio Spaetkauf’s February podcast on which we interview journalist John Riceberg: