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Berlin expels Russian diplomats after court rules Moscow ordered dissident’s murder | Germany

Germany has expelled two Russian diplomats and accused the Kremlin of infringing on its sovereignty after a German court ruled on Wednesday that the 2019 murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin took place at the behest of the Russian authorities.

Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, 40, a Georgian citizen who fought against Russia during the second Chechen war in the early 2000s, was shot twice in the head at close range in the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park in central Berlin, in August 2019.

A Russian national who was detained near the scene after being spotted throwing a bicycle and a gun into the River Spree was found to have travelled to Germany under false identity papers. He was later identified as Vadim Krasikov, a 56-year-old with links to Russian security services, though Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, rejected talk of a state-sanctioned killing as “absolutely groundless”.

The killing sparked outrage in Germany and prompted the government to expel two Russian diplomats at the start of legal proceedings in December 2019, leading to a reciprocal response by Moscow. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday said it would again retaliate against the most recent expulsions, which she called “unfriendly”.

Wednesday’s ruling at a Berlin regional court puts further pressure on already strained diplomatic relations between Germany and Russia. The judge Olaf Arnoldi jailed Krasikov for life for what he called a “painstakingly planned” hit job, saying Russian security services had provided him with a false identity, fake passport and the resources to carry out the assassination.

“In June 2019 at the latest, state organs of the central government of the Russian Federation took the decision to liquidate Tornike Khangoshvili in Berlin,” the judge said. “Four children lost their father, two siblings their brother.

“Some media suggested that Russia or even Vladimir Putin are on trial here,” he added. “That’s misleading: only the convict is on the bench. But our task does involve considering the circumstances of the crime.”

Judges said Krasikov bore “particularly grave responsibility” for the killing and so would not be entitled to the automatic parole after 15 years that is customary in Germany.

On Wednesday afternoon, Germany’s new government responded to the verdict by declaring two diplomats working at the country’s embassy in Berlin personae non gratae.

“This state-ordered murder […] constitutes a grave violation of German law and the sovereignty of the Federal German Republic”, said the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.

The Russian ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, claimed the court’s verdict was politically motivated. “We consider this verdict a prejudiced and politically motivated decision that puts considerable strain on already difficult German-Russian relations,” he said.

The verdict corresponds to the demands of Germany’s federal prosecutor, who had taken over the case in view of its heightened political significance. In the indictment, prosecutors accused Russia of ordering the murder “in radical defiance of rule-of-law principles”.

They alleged that Krasikov travelled to Berlin for a “state-contracted killing”, and shot the victim from behind with a silencer-fitted handgun near the Kleiner Tiergarten. With Khangoshvili lying on the ground, Krasikov allegedly fired two more bullets into his head.

Witnesses said they saw the suspect throw a bike, a gun and a wig into the Spree near the scene and alerted police, who arrested him before he could make off on an electric scooter parked in a doorway.

Visa documents in his belongings identified the man as 49-year-old Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, born in Irkutsk, Siberia, and based in St Petersburg. However, an investigation by the open-source intelligence outfit Bellingcat identified the suspect as Krasikov. The researcher working on the investigation was invited as a court witness.

Another witness, a brother-in-law of the Russian suspect, identified him as Krasikov in October this year. In his first appearance, the same witness had declined to identify the accused man, but he later asked to be invited back, saying he had feared being targeted by Russian intelligence.

Krasikov denied any ties to the Russian state and FSB, Russia’s principal security agency. His defence lawyers said he was a victim of mistaken identity.

Khangoshvili’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 him. Khangoshvili had claimed asylum in Germany three years earlier.

With Russian-German relations already under strain over a buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, the new German government’s response to the verdict is seen as a first test of resolve for the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and foreign minister Baerbock, who has vowed to champion human rights.

The newspaper Der Tagesspiegel said in an editorial that a Moscow-ordered killing on German soil was “an outrageous event that infringes on the sovereignty of the federal republic”, and should dispel illusions that damaged relations with Russia could be repaired “purely with a little bit more dialogue”.



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