Germany Expels Russian Diplomats Over State-Ordered Killing

BERLIN (AP) -
A court official stands outside the courtroom at the “Tiergarten murder” trial in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Dec.15, 2021.  (Christophe Gateau/Pool via AP)

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.

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.

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 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.

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.