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Verdict due in Germany knife killing that sparked racist riots

3 min

Berlin (AFP)

A 24-year-old Syrian man is expected to face a court verdict Thursday over a knife killing that sparked far-right street violence and protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz.

The ruling comes at a sensitive time, one year after thousands of neo-Nazis and enraged citizens marched through Chemnitz, and just over a week ahead of state elections in the ex-communist region.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has railed against immigrants and Islam, is forecast to poll strongly in the state of Saxony and neighbouring Brandenburg on September 1.

In the high-profile manslaughter case, in which a verdict is expected after 1200 GMT, prosecutors charge that Alaa Sheikhi, together with an Iraqi man still at large, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in the early hours of August 26, 2018.

The Iraqi, a 22-year-old identified only as Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, according to the prosecution which wants Sheikhi jailed for 10 years.

Both the Arabs then allegedly stabbed Hillig, who died of heart and lung wounds, as well as another man, named as Dimitri M., who was badly injured.

Sheikhi, who arrived in Germany during the 2015 mass migrant influx to Europe, was detained hours after the attack, together with another Iraqi who was later released for lack of evidence.

Defence counsel for Sheikhi argued that the case against him is flawed and based only on questionable, late-night witness testimony rather than fingerprints, DNA or other forensic evidence.

The trial has been held in Saxony's capital Dresden for security reasons and because of what the court called the "extraordinarily high public interest".

- Far-right hotbed -

News of the killing a year ago spread within hours on social media and led neo-Nazis, angry football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and others to march through Chemnitz.

In some cases, the mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.

Local Jewish, Turkish and Iranian restaurants became targets of xenophobic vandalism.

As the extremist AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements marched in Chemnitz, and anti-fascist groups organised large counter-protests, a political fight also raged in Berlin, centred on whether the violence amounted to organised "hunts" of ethnic minorities.

In a controversy that shook Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, the then-domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen, an outspoken critic of her liberal immigration policy, eventually had to step down.

Maassen, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), has recently been touring Saxony state with speaking engagements outlining his hardline stance on immigration and security.

He has again embroiled the CDU in controversy after Merkel's anointed successor, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, suggested he be kicked out of the party -- a move many see as playing into AfD hands.

The Chemnitz unrest threw a harsh spotlight on the drab city of 240,000 people, formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, which has had an extremist subculture since the turbulent years after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the 1990s it was an early hideout for a militant neo-Nazi cell dubbed the National Socialist Underground, which was only uncovered in 2011 after its members had murdered nine immigrants and a police officer.

Last October, police arrested eight men accused of having formed the far-right militant group "Revolution Chemnitz".

And in March, fans of fourth-tier football club Chemnitzer FC paid tribute to the recently deceased former security chief Thomas Haller, co-founder of a group called "HooNaRa", short for Hooligans-Nazis-Racists.

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