BERLIN, Germany — A German court has convicted a 33-year-old man who gave the stiff-armed Hitler salute during far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz, sentencing him to eight months’ probation and a fine of 2,000 euros ($2,325).
The Chemnitz district court verdict Thursday came some two weeks after the killing of a German man, for which an Iraqi and a Syrian have been arrested, prompted days of anti-migrant protests in Chemnitz that at times turned violent.
The largest demonstration was the day after the August 26 killing, when some 6,000 people took to the streets and photos of participants giving the Hitler salute were widely published.
On the sidelines of the protest masked men threw stones and bottles at a kosher restaurant yelling “Jewish pig, get out of Germany.”
The day before, in spontaneous protests by hundreds immediately after the killing, several foreigners were attacked and injured in the streets.
German laws prohibit displays of the Hitler salute, the swastika and other Nazi symbols, and authorities have said they’re investigating dozens of cases.
On Wednesday Chancellor Angela Merkel assured parliament she takes seriously Germans’ concerns about crimes committed by migrants and pledged a strong response, but condemned recent demonstrations as “hateful,” saying there was “no excuse” for expressions of hate, Nazi sympathies or violence in response.
Merkel assured lawmakers that her government was equally aware of its responsibility to take the wider concerns of the public seriously, and that it was working with “all resolution” on the issue.
Alexander Gauland, a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party whose members marched alongside the neo-Nazis in Chemnitz, defended their participation, saying they were exercising their “democratic right to freedom of assembly.”
“There were a couple of aggressive idiots among the demonstrators who were yelling ‘foreigners out’ and who gave the Hitler salute, nobody disputes that,” he said. “That is distasteful and criminal, but it was a minority who were neither representative of the demonstration as a whole nor able to delegitimize the majority of the protesters.”
He accused the “political mainstream” parties in parliament of making too much of the neo-Nazis involved for their own purposes.
“If it weren’t for these idiots and dunderheads, if only the normal citizens were demonstrating, it would be a catastrophe for you,” he said.
Social Democrat lawmaker Martin Schulz slammed Gauland’s comments as harking back to the Nazi era, saying “similar rhetoric has been heard in this house before.”
“I think it’s time for democrats in this country to defend themselves against this kind of rhetorical escalation, which will result in the abandonment of inhibitions in the end and lead to violence on the streets,” Schulz said, to a standing ovation.