France state

Russian convicted of murdering Chechen in Berlin park

BERLIN – A German court ruled on Wednesday that the Russian state orchestrated the murder of a former Chechen separatist fighter in a Berlin park in the summer of 2019 and sentenced the Russian citizen convicted of pulling the trigger to life imprisonment.

Although German authorities have previously concluded that Russian intelligence services were likely involved in the murder, the Berlin murder trial was a rare case in which the Russian government’s secret actions to eliminate an enemy in foreign territory were subject to scrutiny. judicial review. .

The new German government was quick to react. Shortly after the verdict was announced, the German Foreign Ministry told the Russian ambassador it would expel two Russian diplomats, resuming heightened tensions after the murder that led to expulsions on both sides.

“This state-ordered murder – as determined by the court today – constitutes a serious violation of German law and of German sovereignty,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a statement. communicated.

The convicted man, identified by German authorities as Vadim N. Krasikov, 55, claimed before and during the trial that he had no connection with the Russian state, but German officials said he was an employee of Russia’s Domestic Spy Service, known by his initials, FSB

The victim was a 40-year-old refugee named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, known by the pseudonym Tornike K. in German court documents, who was a former Chechen separatist commander who fought against Russian forces in the early 2000s and was referred to as terrorist by the Russian state. media.

Reading the sentence, the judges of the Berlin High Court found Mr. Krasikov guilty of murder and illegal possession of a firearm. Judges said the Russian was “gravely guilty”, an unusual move that makes a shorter sentence or less likely to be released on parole.

Mr. Krasikov “had been part of the state security apparatus and had been ordered by a state agency within the government of the Russian Federation to liquidate him,” said Lisa Jani , spokesperson for the court.

The Russian Embassy in Berlin wrote in a press release on Twitter that the accusations of Russian involvement were “absurd” and unsupported by evidence.

Mr Krasikov, who called himself Vadim A. Sokolov and had a Russian passport in that name, was arrested after two witnesses saw him throw his bicycle and a bag into the Spree River after shooting the victim at least twice. Police divers then found a Glock 26 pistol in the park’s river, just over a mile from the chancellor’s office.

Credit…Berlin Police Department

The verdict came the same day Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in as Germany’s new ruler last week, made his first speech to parliament. In his speech, he warned that Russia would pay a “high price” for any “violation of territorial integrity”, although he did not mention either the murder or the verdict.

As Russian troops gather near the Ukrainian border, dealing with Moscow is one of the new government’s first major foreign policy tests. The sentence handed down in Berlin is expected to make relations even more difficult.

Yet Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats should take a more tolerant approach in their dealings with the Russian government than Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats have taken.

“We are ready for a constructive dialogue,” Scholz said in his speech to Parliament. “In the context of our history, this must apply to our country especially in its relations with Russia.”

In rendering its decision, the court not only convicted Mr. Krasikov, but also supported a claim by the German Federal Prosecutor that the murder was committed with the participation of the Russian government.

“There are sufficient and real indications that the murder of Tornike K. was carried out either by order of officials of the Russian Federation or of those of the Autonomous Republic of Chechnya, part of the Republic of Russia,” said the prosecutor in 2019 when taking on the case of local authorities.

Western intelligence agencies have long believed that President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russian spy services are using the assassination as a tool to settle scores with those the Kremlin sees as enemies of the state.

A year before Mr Khangoshvili’s assassination, two agents from the Russian military intelligence service traveled to Britain, where they smeared a very powerful Soviet-designed nerve agent called Novichok on the front door of ‘a house belonging to Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the British in the 1990s.

Mr Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fell seriously ill but survived, as did a police detective who intervened at their home and a Briton who picked up a perfume dispenser that Russian officers had used to transport the poison. . The man’s girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, later died when she sprayed the contents of the perfume bottle on her skin.

Western intelligence agencies later determined that the assassination was orchestrated by a specialized group of military intelligence officers, known as Unit 29155, but Mr. Khangoshvili’s murder was attributed to a another agency, the FSB.

The FSB is primarily responsible for operations inside Russia. According to the findings of the open source investigation group Bellingcat, supported by several Western intelligence agencies, it is this agency which is responsible for the poisoning of Mr. Putin’s most prominent political opponent, Alexei A. Navalny , in Siberia last year.

But Western security officials are increasingly concerned about FSB activities outside Russia.

German authorities initially struggled to learn anything about the man they had arrested in connection with the murder. Mr Krasikov traveled on a real Russian passport, but with a false name, and Russian authorities refused to provide German investigators with any information that might help them. Asked about the case at a summit in Paris a few months after the murder, Mr. Putin described Mr. Khangoshvili as “a cruel and bloodthirsty person”.

As Mr Navalny’s daughter Daria Navalnaya accepted the Sakharov Prize, the biggest human rights prize in the European Union, on behalf of her father on Wednesday, she reminded attendees of the alleged extraterritorial killings from Russia, noting the murder in Berlin and the Skripal affair in Britain. .

“We already know that a real terrorist group has been created within Putin’s special services, killing citizens of my country without a hearing or trial, without justice,” she told members of the European Parliament gathered in Strasbourg , in France, urging them to take a tougher line against the Russian leader.

“They were about to kill my mother, they almost killed my father, and no one will guarantee that tomorrow European politicians will not start falling dead just by touching a doorknob.”

Michel schwirtz contributed to reports from Kiev, Ukraine and Valerie Hopkins From Moscow.