Prosecutor: Anti-refugee movement spreading false claims about Syrian child rape
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TWIN FALLS — Authorities are denying reports that Syrians gang-raped a child at knife-point in a Twin Falls apartment complex earlier this month, saying the false claims are being spread to incite anti-refugee sentiments.
“There were no Syrians involved, there was no knife involved, there was no gang-rape,” Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said Monday morning.
His comments largely refute several differing accounts about the incident circulating on anti-refugee resettlement and conspiracy websites and anti-Muslim blogs. Most of those accounts claim a group of Syrian refugees sexually assaulted a mentally disabled girl at knife-point June 2 in the laundry facilities of Fawnbrook Apartments, a low-income housing complex in Twin Falls, and that the attack was celebrated by the perpetrators’ families as city officials orchestrated a cover-up.
Investigators and the prosecutor were quick to dismiss nearly all those claims Monday. Loebs said he didn’t want to “fan the flames of anti-Syrian refugee people” but suspects the false reports are the work of a local group opposed to refugee resettlement who hoped to stir up trouble by claiming the incident involved Syrian refugees who committed a violent sexual assault.
“There is a small group of people in Twin Falls County whose life goal is to eliminate refugees, and thus far they have not been constrained by the truth,” Loebs said.
“They have not been constrained by the truth in the past, and I don’t expect them to be constrained by the truth in the future.”
An incident did occur, Loebs said, and two juveniles have been charged after authorities obtained video shot on a cellphone. But the details of the case don’t match what’s being reported by anti-refugee groups, the prosecutor said.
The criminal cases against those juveniles have been sealed, as is customary when children are charged. Although prosecutors and police are barred from discussing certain details in sealed juvenile cases, Loebs laid out the basics in an interview Monday with the Times-News. And Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury briefed the public on the incident at a City Council meeting later in the evening, saying he wanted to clear up falsehoods circulating on social media.
According to those officials, three boys were involved, ages 7, 10 and 14, and the alleged victim was a 5-year-old girl. The boys are from Sudan and Iraq; none are Syrian. They are being held at a juvenile detention facility. Officials suspect the boys have been in the Unites States fewer than two years, but their refugee status wasn’t immediately clear to the police chief.
There were no adults involved, Loebs said, the boys didn’t have a knife, and the incident wasn’t a “gang-rape” instigated by the oldest boy.
“All those involved are juveniles, and the older one didn’t touch the victim in any way,” Loebs said. Only one person is alleged to have touched the victim, said the prosecutor, though he declined to elaborate.
The police chief also said there is no evidence to support claims the suspects’ fathers high-fived or praised the boys for committing the alleged assault, as has been reported on anti-refugee websites.
The prosecutor received a report Thursday from police. Further refuting claims made in the stories online that police bungled the investigation or tried to cover it up, Loebs said the police investigated the incident thoroughly, interviewed everyone who needed to be and followed proper protocols.
The police chief told the public the victim’s health and safety were the department’s first priority, and apprehending the suspects was the second — regardless of either’s ethnicity or religious beliefs.
Kingsbury also addressed claims that it took the police department more than two hours to respond.
“Simply, that just is not true,” the chief said. “The Twin Falls Police Department, the Magic Valley Paramedics, even the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, responded in due time.”
Earlier in his comments, Kingsbury said the call originally came in as “something a lot less serious than a sexual assault or lewd and lascivious conduct.”
Loebs said sex cases between minors aren’t uncommon and implied that this case is being exploited by the local anti-refugee movement to make a political point.
Refugee-resettlement officials called the online reports deceptive attempts to incite anti-refugee sentiments.
Only a handful of people from Syria live in Twin Falls County — 11 Syrians were receiving food stamps in the county and eight were on Medicaid in 2015, according to state statistics. No Syrians have been settled in Twin Falls through Idaho refugee programs, said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.
“There have been periodic website postings about hundreds of Syrians coming to Idaho that have all proven to be false in the past, and this is probably just one of those attempts to try and stir up hatred and bigotry,” he said.
Loebs said the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, which oversees refugee resettlement in the Magic Valley, did not resettle the boys involved and that the program has “absolutely nothing to do with this.”
Zeze Rwasama, director of the CSI Refugee Center, said he knows no details about the incident or the names of those involved but is deeply concerned about what the online claims and misinformation are doing to the community.
A headline at the online news site Drudge Report read: “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.” Snopes, a fact-checking website, said the story was “mostly false.”
“I think the community has seen a lot of negativity around the refugee programs,” Rwasama said. “Speculations are things that can destroy the entire community.”
Echoing statements by the prosecutor, Rwasama said refugee opponents are trying to promote an agenda, particularly against Syrian refugees. He asked residents to confirm facts and refrain from speculating online.
“It breaks my heart when people in the community are divided around issues of resettling refugees,” he said.
Last week, residents at a City Council meeting called on city officials to release more information about the incident and questioned whether authorities were covering it up. The story blew up over the weekend when the juveniles were arrested, and differing accounts were widely circulated on conspiracy-oriented blogs such as Dr. Rich Swier, Refugee Resettlement Watch, Creeping Sharia and Info Wars.
People packed the Council’s meeting on Monday, some speaking in favor of refugee resettlement and others warning that resettlement was a federal government plot overseen by President Barack Obama to allow Muslims to infiltrate the United States.
Supporters of the family started a Facebook group, “Justice For Our Children,” that had almost 9,000 members as of Monday morning. They have also started a GoFundMe page to raise money to help the family move and an online petition that had more than 1,100 signatures from all over the country as of Monday.
The incident is just the latest to rekindle a debate in Twin Falls over refugees, security, culture and religion.
News last year that Syrians fleeing a years-long civil war could be among about 300 refugees to be resettled in Twin Falls this year touched off an anti-refugee movement that sought to close the local resettlement office. Those efforts failed when organizers couldn’t gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters. Critics of the program have raised concerns about security and refugee vetting, but some of the movement’s most prominent members have also pitched wild conspiracy theories and tried to frame the debate around religion by frequently making disparaging remarks against Muslims.
Though no Syrians refugees have been resettled in Twin Falls, 36 have been resettled in Boise.
“These were all families,” said Reeves, the director of the Idaho Office for Refugees. “They’re now resettled here. They’re moving on with their lives.”