Cold War-style killing adds to Russian-German tensions
The trial comes after the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which may prompt EU sanctions against Putin’s government
Berlin — A trial over an execution-style murder in a Berlin city park is likely to further test already strained relations between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the Kremlin.
A panel of five judges began proceedings on Wednesday against a man the court called Vadim Krasikov over allegations that he gunned down a Georgian of Chechen descent at the behest of Russian authorities. The victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was a militia leader from 2000 to 2004 in the second Chechen war against Russia, according to German prosecutors.
Krasikov shot Khangoshvili in broad daylight in the Kleiner Tiergarten park in August 2019, according to findings in the case. He was apprehended shortly afterward and has been in custody ever since. Federal prosecutors charged him in June.
The trial is the latest in a series of issues that have soured ties between Berlin and Moscow. It comes after fresh evidence in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which may prompt Germany and the European Union to levy sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Putin in December denied Russia was involved in the Tiergarten murder and pledged to co-operate with German investigators.
“This man was wanted in Russia,” Putin said about the murdered Georgian. “He was a militant, and a very tough and bloody man.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said Russia had no new information about the murder.
Prosecutors say Krasikov was equipped with a Russian passport using an alias identity of a Vadim Sokolov.
The man appearing as the accused at the trial on Wednesday insisted he was Sokolov and denied being Krasikov.
“I don’t know such a person,” he said. His defence lawyer said his client would not comment on the charges for the moment.
The Kleiner Tiergarten is a small park located directly next to the central Berlin criminal court where the trial is taking place.
Alena Epifanova at the German Council on Foreign Relations said Russia would seek to portray the trial as a campaign against it “steered from abroad”.
“The Russian regime will do everything to look good internally,” Epifanova said. “If the Berlin court finds that the Russian government ordered the murder, diplomatic measures will certainly be taken.”
German prosecutors in June said Russian authorities ordered Krasikov to “liquidate” Khangoshvili, who had been living in Germany as a refugee since 2016.
“He followed the government killing order,” prosecutors said in court. “Either because he wanted the money or he shared the motives to kill a political enemy and thus taking revenge for his participating in former conflicts with Russia.”
The defendant allegedly shot his victim from behind using a silencer-equipped Glock 26 pistol, according to the indictment. Khangoshvili died on the spot, just a 10-minute walk from Merkel’s office.
Germany expelled two Russian diplomats in December after the federal prosecutor’s initial findings in the case. When the accused was charged, Germany signalled it would hold off on taking further action against Moscow until a verdict is reached.
The case echoes the 1997 “Mykonos” trial, when a Berlin court found that the Iranian government ordered the killing of four Kurds in a Greek restaurant in the German capital. It caused a diplomatic crisis between Germany and Iran as the judges made reference to “terrorist attacks” by the Iranian government.
The trial is scheduled to continue on Thursday.
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