BERLIN: A 24-year-old Syrian man was sentenced to nine- and-a-half years in jail Thursday for a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz.
The court found that Alaa Sheikhi, together with an Iraqi man still at large, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in the early hours of August 26 last year.
Defence lawyers appealed the verdict, arguing that the court had buckled under societal and political pressure, but chief justice Simone Herberger said she saw “no doubt about his guilt”.
The manslaughter conviction comes at a sensitive time, one year after thousands of neo-Nazis and enraged citizens marched through Chemnitz, and 10 days before state elections in the ex-communist region.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has railed against immigrants and Islam, is forecast to poll strongly in the state of Saxony and neighbouring Brandenburg on September 1.
The court heard that the fugitive Iraqi, a 22-year-old identified only as Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots.
Both he and Sheikhi then stabbed Hillig, who died of internal injuries, as well as another man, named as Dimitri M., who was badly injured.
Sheikhi, who arrived in Germany during the 2015 mass migrant influx to Europe, was detained hours after the attack, together with another Iraqi who was later released for lack of evidence.
Defence lawyer Ricarda Lang had argued that the case against Sheikhi was based only on questionable, late-night witness testimony rather than fingerprints, DNA or other forensic evidence.
Lang also asserted, shortly before the verdict, that the court was “not unaffected by the political situation in Chemnitz” and may convict the defendant because “someone needs to take the blame so that Chemnitz stays quiet”.
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The trial was held not in Chemnitz but in Saxony’s state capital Dresden, for security reasons and because of what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest”.
News of the killing a year ago spread within hours on social media and led neo-Nazis, angry football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and others to march through Chemnitz.
In some cases, the mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.
Local Jewish, Turkish and Iranian restaurants at the time became targets of xenophobic vandalism.
As the extremist AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements marched in Chemnitz, and anti-fascist groups organised large counter-protests, a political fight also raged in Berlin.
In a controversy that shook Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, the then-domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen, an outspoken critic of her liberal immigration policy, questioned her assessment that the violence amounted to organised “hunts” of ethnic minorities.
Maassen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), eventually had to step down. But he has recently been touring eastern Germany with speaking engagements outlining his hardline stance on immigration and security.
The Chemnitz unrest threw a harsh spotlight on the drab city of 240,000 people, formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, which has had an extremist subculture since the turbulent years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the 1990s it was an early hideout for a militant neo-Nazi cell dubbed the National Socialist Underground, which was only uncovered in 2011 after its members had murdered nine immigrants and a police officer.
Last October, police arrested eight men accused of having formed the far-right militant group “Revolution Chemnitz”, assaulted migrants and plotted further attacks.
And in March, fans of fourth-tier football club Chemnitzer FC paid tribute to the recently deceased former security chief Thomas Haller, co-founder of a group called “HooNaRa”, short for Hooligans-Nazis-Racists.