German court convicts Russian man of state-ordered killing

FILE - People carry the body of the victim who has been identified as Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian Muslim during the funeral in Duisi village, the Pankisi Gorge valley, in Georgia, Aug. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Zurab Tsertsvadze, file)

BERLIN (AP) — A Russian man was convicted Wednesday of a brazen daylight killing in Germany’s capital two years ago that judges said was ordered by federal authorities in Russia and was labeled as “state terrorism” by a Berlin court.

The 2019 slaying of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, 40, a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity, sparked outrage in Germany and inflamed diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Berlin. It prompted the German government to expel two Russian diplomats followed by a reciprocal response from Russia.

The Berlin regional court said in its verdict that Russian authorities provided 56-year-old Vadim Krasikov 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. “It commissioned the accused.”

The Kremlin has called the allegations of Russian involvement in the Berlin killing “absolutely groundless.”

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 parties to the trial are sitting in the courtroom in Berlin,Germany, Wednesday, Dec.15, 2021. (Christophe Gateau/Pool via AP)

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.

German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit declined to comment immediately on the verdict.

The outcome of the trial 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.

The victim’s relatives, who under German law were 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 Khangoshvili.

The presiding judge said that the victim had considered himself a Chechen patriot and had taken part 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 the Russian town of Basran in which civilians were also killed.

“There is no doubt that Khangoshvili bears responsibility for people’s deaths,” Arnoldi said, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s description of the victim in December 2019 as a “terrorist and murderer.”

The victim had survived an assassination attempt in Georgia before moving 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,” said Arnoldi, adding there was no evidence that Khangoshvili was politically active in Germany or continued to pursue extremist or terrorist ideas.

Judges concluded that overwhelming evidence reviewed over the course of dozens of hearings, including from 47 witnesses, left no doubt that Krasikov had carried out the killing that occurred a few hundred meters from the court.

In a lengthy summary of the verdict, Arnoldi said that while Krasikov — a twice-married father of three — had no previous convictions, he had been sought by Russian authorities over the killing of a businessman in Moscow in 2013. The case was dropped in 2015.

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 can be appealed.

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.

German’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has called for a tougher stance toward Russia, especially over its military buildup near Ukraine. But Scholz has called for a new “Ostpolitik” — or policy toward the east — of the kind that his Social Democratic predecessor as chancellor, Willy Brandt, pursued during the Cold War.