Germany expels Russian diplomats over state-ordered killing

AP , Wednesday 15 Dec 2021

Germany's foreign minister said Wednesday that her country is expelling two Russian diplomats after a court concluded that Moscow was behind the killing of a Chechen man in Berlin two years ago.

Courtroom in Berlin,Germany
The parties to the trial are sitting in the courtroom in Berlin,Germany, Wednesday, Dec.15, 2021. The verdict is expected in the Tiergarten Murder trial, a 56-year-old man is accused of shooting a Chechen with Georgian citizenship in the Berlin park. The Federal Prosecutor s Office assumes that he was ordered by state authorities of the central government of the Russian Federation and has requested life imprisonment. AP

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the state-ordered killing a ``grave breach of German law and the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Germany.'' Russia's ambassador in Berlin has been summoned to discuss the court's finding, Baerbock said.

The 2019 brazen daylight killing of Zelimkhan ``Tornike'' Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity, sparked outrage in Berlin and previously prompted the German government to expel two Russian diplomats _ a move Russia swiftly reciprocated at the time.

Judges at Berlin's regional court convicted 56-year-old Vadim Krasikov of the killing but said he had acted on the orders of Russian federal authorities, who provided him with a false identity, fake passport, and the resources to carry out the hit on Aug. 23, 2019.

``The central government of the Russian Federation was the author of this crime,'' presiding judge Olaf Arnoldi said, labeling the killing ``state terrorism.''

Baerbock said she spoke Tuesday with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and made clear that Germany wants an ``open and honest exchange with Russia,'' and that this should happen ``on the basis of international law and mutual respect.''

``It is clear that acts such as the...murder weigh heavily on this relationship,'' she said. ``The German government will do everything necessary to ensure that security in our country and the respect for our laws is ensured.''

After Wednesday's verdict, Russia's ambassador in Berlin issued a statement rejecting allegations of Russian involvement in the killing.

``We consider the verdict an unobjective, politically motivated decision that seriously aggravates already complicated Russian-German relations,'' Ambassador Sergei Nechayev said. Nechayev called the verdict ``an unfriendly act that won't go unanswered.``

``The absurd notion about Russia's involvement in the wrongdoing during the entire course of the trial was being methodically imposed on the public, was being weaved into the general anti-Russian background, but wasn't in the end proved with convincing evidence,'' he said.

During an oral summary of the court's findings that lasted almost two hours, Arnoldi said he and four fellow judges had reviewed a wealth of evidence during the 14-month trial, including 47 witness testimonies and material provided by a dozen countries, along with ``very limited answers from the Russian Federation.''

The court found Krasikov guilty of murder Wednesday and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Defense lawyers had asked the court to acquit their client, who claimed a case of mistaken identity.

The judges said Krasikov bore ``particularly grave responsibility'' for the slaying, meaning he won't be entitled to the automatic parole after 15 years that is customary in Germany.

Tracing the biographies of Krasikov and Khangoshvili, Arnoldi said it was important to note the victim's involvement in fighting against Russian forces in Chechnya from 2001 onward.

In 2004, Khangoshvili led a group of fighters who carried out an attack on a police station in Russia, and civilians were killed along with officers.

``There is no doubt that Khangoshvili bears responsibility for people's deaths,'' the judge said, adding later that Russian authorities had likely sought ``revenge and retribution'' for his actions. Asked about the case at a news conference in December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the victim as a ``terrorist and murderer.''

Khangoshvili's family, which under German law was allowed to take part in the trial as co-plaintiffs, accused Russia last week of trying to ``send a message'' to its political enemies by killing him.

Khangoshvili survived an earlier assassination attempt in Georgia before moving to Ukraine and then to Berlin in 2016, where he applied for asylum, the judge said.

German authorities denied Khangoshvili's asylum request, and an appeal was rejected in 2018 on the grounds that he didn't face political persecution in his home country.

``This later proved to be obviously wrong,'' Arnoldi said, adding there was no evidence that Khangoshvili was politically active in Germany or continued to pursue extremist ideas.

The German judges said that overwhelming evidence reviewed over the course of dozens of hearings left no doubt that Krasikov had carried out the killing just a few hundred meters from the courthouse.

Krasikov _ a twice-married father of three _ had no previous convictions, Arnoldi said, but official records showed he had been sought by Russian authorities over the killing of a businessman in Moscow in 2013. The case was dropped in 2015.

The evidence reviewed by the court, including material unearthed by the investigative news site Bellingcat, showed that Krasikov had been employed by a Russian security agency and was likely asked to carry out the hit in 2019, Arnoldi said.

A month before the killing, Russian authorities issued Krasikov with a fake passport under the alias Vadim Sokolov that he used to travel to Berlin, where he shot the victim repeatedly from behind with a silencer-fitted handgun near the Kleiner Tiergarten park.

Witnesses saw the suspect throw a bike, a gun, and a wig in the Spree River near the scene and alerted police, who quickly arrested him before he could make off on an electric scooter parked in a doorway.

The court concluded that the killing wouldn't have been possible without unidentified helpers in Berlin, that Moscow had a motive for targeting the victim, and that Russian law permits the killing of alleged terrorists, including abroad if authorized by the president.

``If a business card belonging to a member of the Russian federal government had been found at the scene of the crime, it couldn't have been more damning,'' Arnoldi said.

The ruling, which can be appealed, could stoke new tensions between Germany and Russia at a time when the new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to find its foreign policy footing with Moscow.

A year after the killing, German-Russian relations suffered another blow when then-Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened to fly poisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Berlin for medical treatment. Navalny says he was poisoned by Russian agents, which Moscow denies.

After returning to his home country, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany.

Baerbock, who became Germany's foreign minister a week ago, has called for a tougher stance toward Russia, especially over its military buildup near Ukraine.

But Scholz has called for ``Ostpolitik'' _ or policy toward the east _ of the kind that his Social Democratic predecessor as chancellor, Willy Brandt, pursued during the Cold War.

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