Germany: The Terrifying Power of Muslim Interpreters by Stefan Frank

  • “Everything I told you then is true. … But the interpreter there told me that a faithful woman must not use words like sex and rape. Words like that would dishonor my husband and our family. She also said that I was a blasphemer, because I went to the police. No woman should report her own husband. The husband must be honored.” — “Sali,” in an apparent suicide note to her lawyer, Alexander Stevens.

  • “I am aware of statements in which interpreters have pressed and supposedly said to Christians on the way to the police or beforehand: If you complain, you can forget your application for asylum. I often noticed that statements were retracted because Christians were threatened.” — Paulus Kurt, Central Committee of Eastern Christians in Germany (ZOCD).
  • “The interpreters are neither employed by the Federal Agency, nor are they in any way sworn in to the legal system of the Federal Republic of Germany. Ultimately, examination of the asylum application is left solely to these interpreters… In our view, a decision-making process such as this, which is practiced on a massive scale, is not in keeping with due process.” — Open letter from employees of Germany’s Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees.

Alexander Stevens is a lawyer at a Munich law firm specializing in sexual offenses. In his recent book, Sex in Court, he describes some of his strangest and most shocking cases. One such case raises the question: What do you do when interpreters working for the police and courts lie and manipulate? As no one monitors translators, it is likely that in many instances, the dishonesty of interpreters goes undetected — Stevens’ book chronicles the devastating effects one dishonest interpreter had on a case.

The parents of a Syrian girl, “Sali,” had promised their daughter to a man named Hassan, who, at the time, was still living in Syria. The arrangement was seen as mutually beneficial: Sali’s parents would receive money and Hassan would be allowed to enter Germany. Sali would never willingly have married a man 34 years her senior, but the family’s honor required it. However, Sali did not receive any benefits from this arrangement. Hassan’s interest in Sali was apparently confined to her body. He forced Sali to perform all kinds of sexual practices several times a day, and brutally abused the girl in the process.

Sali was unable to hide the fact that she took no pleasure in these rapes and she became ill, so Hassan reproached her and “openly threatened to demand a large compensation payment from her family, for the cost of the wedding reception and lost pleasures of love.” Sali sought help from a women’s shelter, where an employee took her to a lawyer: Stevens. At the shelter, Sali described her misfortune, but was careful repeatedly to come to her husband’s defense. She was more worried about her family’s honor, should Hassan decided to divorce her, than about herself.

“After two hours of painstaking depictions of sexual abuse, corporal punishment, and mental humiliation,” Stevens writes, “I had no doubt that everything had actually happened as she said.”

The next day, Stevens tried to get an appointment for questioning with the police and an interpreter. But he was surprised when he got to the shelter. Sali was like a different person. Suddenly, she wanted nothing to do with him or the women’s shelter employee.

Sometime later, an employee of the women’s shelter sent him a letter that Sali had left behind for him. It read:

Dear Mr. Stevens,

I am very sorry to have caused you so much inconvenience. Please believe me when I say I did not want to. Everything I told you then is true. I also wanted to make a statement to the police regarding what I told you. But the interpreter there told me that a faithful woman must not use words like sex and rape. Words like that would dishonor my husband and our family. She also said that I was a blasphemer, because I went to the police. No woman should report her own husband. The husband must be honored. I did not know what to do, Mr. Stevens. Because I think she is right. I should never have disgraced my husband and my family. Therefore, I would ask you not to tell anyone. I do not want to create any more trouble for my family and my husband’s family. Please forgive me. You were very good to me.


By this time, Sali was already dead. According to the employee from the women’s shelter, the police suspected suicide.

Interpreters Decide on Asylum

Non-Muslim refugees, in particular, complain of the pressure exerted on them by Muslim interpreters. As Gatestone Institute has already reported, Christians and other non-Muslims are beaten, threatened, and harassed in German refugee homes. One of the reasons that German authorities do not intervene has to do with the Muslim interpreters, says Paulus Kurt, head of the work groups for the Central Committee of Eastern Christians in Germany (ZOCD):

“Interpreters belonging to the Islamic religion often stick with the defendants. I am aware of statements in which interpreters have pressured and supposedly said to Christians, on the way to the police or beforehand: ‘If you complain, you can forget your application for asylum.’ I often noticed that statements were retracted because Christians were threatened.”

The effects of these abuses of power are devastating: interpreters in Germany have great influence on who is granted asylum. In a November 2015 open letter to Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of their agency, employees of the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), pointed out the potential problems of this system within their agency:

“A Syrian is someone who identifies himself as a Syrian in writing (checks the proper box on the questionnaire), and the interpreter (usually not sworn in, or from Syria) confirms it. The interpreters are neither employed by the Federal Agency, nor are they in any way sworn in to the legal system of the Federal Republic of Germany. Ultimately, examination of the asylum application is left solely to these interpreters — insofar as it involves the verification of nationality and, therefore, the country of persecution. In our view, a decision-making process such as this, which is practiced on a massive scale, is not in keeping with due process.”

Television Reports

In May 2016, the German public television station Bayerischer Rundfunk broadcast a report on Muslim interpreters who lie. The report, entitled “Treason in the Refugee Home: When Translators Mistranslate,” exposed several instances of the same issue:

Moderator: With the growing number of refugees, the demand for interpreters has also rapidly increased. Ultimately, translators play a central role in the asylum procedures, for example. Since there is an overall shortage of qualified and sworn interpreters, the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees has recently been advertising for translators with this flyer [title: “We are Looking for Interpreters”]. Inside, it says: “You take on great responsibility in your work, and we expect you to be neutral and reliable.” But there is often a gaping hole between expectations and reality.

Reporter: Bullied and threatened by other refugees. A nightmare, what this Iraqi refugee is telling us. He asks one of the translators for help, but he [the translator] takes the side of the attacker.

Hassan: “They wanted to beat us; they insulted us. And the interpreter thought about everything while translating, and alleged that none of it had happened.”

Reporter: Hassan, as we call the young man, belongs to a small religious community of Yezidis. Radical Sunni Muslims despise Yezidis, even in Germany. Instead of conveying the message, the translator cheated him.

Hassan: “The interpreter translated that we merely had a dispute on the street.”

Reporter: That was a conscious mistranslation. Not an isolated incident, says Gian Aldonani. She fled to Germany as a young Yezidi girl. As a student in Cologne, she got involved in working with refugees. In the process, it became apparent to her again and again:

Gian Aldonani: “It is purposefully mistranslated. At first, we thought these were isolated cases out of Cologne and the surrounding area. But in documenting all of the cases, we recognized that translators all over Germany were very purposefully mistranslating. […] The social workers are reliant on the translators. The translators take advantage of this situation. These people are doing the same thing here that they do with minorities in their countries of origin.”

Hasan (left), a Yezidi refugee in Germany who was threatened by Muslims, speaks to a reporter from German public television about how a government-employed translator deliberately mistranslated his complaint and took the side of his attackers. (Image source: Bayerischer Rundfunk video screenshot)

More “Isolated Cases”

Similar cases — always labelled “isolated cases” — are found in German and Austrian newspapers again and again.

In Austria, in June 2016, the Salzburg regional court sentenced a jihadist to two years in prison. He had fought for the Al-Nusra Front in Syria. Incidentally, it became known that: “The 29-year-old came to Salzburg as a refugee in October 2015 and helped at the Freilassing border crossing as an interpreter.”

Regarding “interpreter and cultural mediator Besnik S.,” the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper wrote:

“Besnik S. also interpreted for the young refugees — until one of his colleagues became suspicious of him. Besnik S. was consistently translating incorrectly. Instead of facilitating communication for the young men, he allegedly tried to bring them closer to his ideology. “

Particularly grotesque is the March 2016 case of a Chechen interpreter, who worked as a court translator in Graz, Austria:

“The interpreter had already interpreted several people’s statements. As another witness was supposed be questioned at that point, the woman [interpreter] explained that the witness in question was her husband. But she claimed that he could not come that day, and sent his apologies, because he was in Russia at the moment and had already informed the court of that. The man was accused in another proceeding of a similar type. … Observers had already noticed that, during recesses in the proceedings, the interpreter had talked with about 20 Chechens among the courtroom spectators.”

Alexander Stevens, the Munich lawyer, often gets the impression that there is a “fraternal solidarity” between interpreters and criminal defendants, he tells Gatestone. From his own experience and from conversations with judges, prosecutors, and fellow attorneys, he knows that Muslim interpreters in particular often violate their duty of neutrality:

“My personal feeling is that not only the defendants [but also the interpreters] of Islamic society are cunning, sly, and sometimes crafty. In this room, organized crime, gang violence, theft, and fraud are frequently dealt with. They are often very smart, and there is an incredible cohesion within the respective cultural and religious community, particularly among Albanians, Turks, Syrians and Moroccans. The common denominator is possibly Islamist conditioning. They are very close, almost like family, but without being related by blood.”

Negligence on the Part of the Authorities

This problem is well known among judges and defense lawyers, says Stevens: “It starts as soon as the judge asks: ‘What is your name?'” Instead of simply translating those three words, the interpreter often talks “forever.”

“Conversely, the interpreter then only says one sentence where you expect a lengthy testimony. Often, you are not really sure what the interpreter and the defendant are discussing.”

Stevens cites negligence on the part of German authorities as exacerbating this problem. While there are strict admission requirements for court interpreters in languages such as English or Spanish, this is not the case in Germany for many other languages. He points out that the German state of Bavaria’s Court Interpreters Act clearly states: “The recognition of foreign degrees falls under the responsibility of the Bavarian Ministry of Education” — meaning that even applicants with flimsy degrees can be hired if the Ministry feels that there is a shortage of interpreters in a particular language.

Stevens criticizes the naïveté of the Germans:

“The swearing-in process goes like this: The judge reads aloud to him from the Judiciary Act, proclaiming that he [the interpreter] will translate faithfully and diligently. That’s it! With that, he is sworn in, and according to German law, he is absolutely credible.”

Stevens points out that although this problem has existed for a long time, it has become even more harmful since the start of “the refugee problem, which involves a whole potpourri of crime, including sexual assault.”

Human Rights Activists: “No Trust for Muslim Translators”

Karl Hafen, the former longtime Executive Chairman of the German section of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), is concerned about the situation faced by non-Muslims in German refugee housing, where interpreters seem complicit. He told Gatestone that

“Most of what is reported to us about translators involves threats that they will not translate if the affected victims blame Muslims for their misfortune, or that interpreters try to point out that what happened is mandated by the Koran.”

Many refugees are already intimidated by the mere presence of a Muslim interpreter.

“Some victims complain that they can no longer speak openly when an interpreter reveals she is Muslim by wearing a headscarf. Others tell us that they are afraid to go to the doctor with a Muslim interpreter, because based on what was done to them, they cannot trust her.”

Hafen does not want to label those interpreters as Islamists — they are normal, conservative Muslims:

“Again, there is a strong return to Islamic rules, a kind of de-integration. It also depends on how the interpreters themselves live, whether alone or in a family that practices Islam. The Muslim interpreters refuse to believe that what happened actually took place as described. And among other things, this practice is encouraged, because part of our media — but especially politicians and bishops — downplay the brutalities and simply refuse to recognize that the people who have become victims, or who have had to witness crimes with their own eyes, no longer trust Muslims.”

We cannot allow translators to continue misrepresenting and manipulating an already vulnerable refugee population. The German authorities need to reform the system for employing translators for courts, police and government agencies, so that all refugees receive the due process they deserve.

Stefan Frank, based in Germany, is an independent journalist and writer.

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