DRESDEN, Germany (AFP) – A Syrian man went on trial yesterday accused of a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz last year.
The manslaughter trial against 23-year-old asylum seeker Alaa Sheikhi is being held in another city of the former communist Saxony state, Dresden, for security reasons.
Prosecutors charge that the Syrian, together with an Iraqi man still at large but subject to an Interpol warrant, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in a late-night street fight last August.
News of the killing spread within hours on social media and led far-right football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and neo-Nazis to march through Chemnitz.
Mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.
Police braced for more trouble yesterday as hundreds of extremists were expected to attend the Chemnitz funeral of a local neo-Nazi.
A year ago, the far-right AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements repeatedly marched in Chemnitz while a political fight raged in Berlin about whether the violence amounted to organised “hunts” of ethnic minorities.
In a controversy that shook German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen, an outspoken critic of her liberal immigration policy, eventually had to step down.
Given the political shock waves, and what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest”, the trial is being held under tight police guard in Dresden, where hearings have been scheduled until October 29, with more than 65 witnesses.
Defence lawyers had unsuccessfully requested it be held outside Saxony, the heartland of the anti-immigration AfD party.
The defence team also argue that the case against their client, who arrived in Germany in 2015, is weak, as police reportedly lack DNA evidence, fingerprints or other forensic proof.
Relying in large part on witness testimony, prosecutors said the argument started near a kebab stand around 3am on August 27 last year after a town festival.
The fugitive Iraqi, 22-year-old Farhad A, was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, said prosecutors.
Both men then allegedly stabbed Hillig, who died of heart and lung wounds, and another man who was badly injured.
Sheikhi was detained soon after together with another Iraqi man, Yousif IA, who was later released for lack of evidence.
If found guilty the Syrian suspect, who denies the crime, faces up to 15 years in jail.
The killing was shocking, but the subsequent riots threw a harsh spotlight on Chemnitz, which has long had an extremist subculture.