DRESDEN, Germany (AFP) — A Syrian man went on trial Monday accused of a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz last year.
The manslaughter trial against 23-year-old asylum seeker Alaa Sheikhi is being held in another city of the ex-communist Saxony state, Dresden, for security reasons.
Prosecutors charge that the Syrian, together with an Iraqi man still at large but subject to an Interpol warrant, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in a late-night street fight last August.
News of the killing spread within hours on social media and led far-right football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and neo-Nazis to march through Chemnitz.
Mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.
Police braced for more trouble Monday as hundreds of extremists were expected to attend the Chemnitz funeral of a local neo-Nazi.
A year ago, the far-right AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements repeatedly marched in Chemnitz while a political fight raged in Berlin about whether the violence amounted to organized “hunts” of ethnic minorities.
In a controversy that shook Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen, an outspoken critic of her liberal immigration policy, eventually had to step down.
Given the political shock waves, and what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest”, the trial is being held under tight police guard in Dresden, where hearings have been scheduled until October 29, with more than 65 witnesses.
Defense lawyers had unsuccessfully requested it be held outside Saxony, the birthplace of Pegida, short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, and the heartland of the anti-immigration AfD party.
The defense team also argue that the case against their client, who arrived in Germany in 2015, is weak, as police reportedly lack DNA evidence, fingerprints or other forensic proof.
Relying in large part on witness testimony, prosecutors say the argument started near a kebab stand around 3 a.m. on August 27 after a town festival.
The fugitive Iraqi, 22-year-old Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, say prosecutors.
Both Arab men then allegedly stabbed Hillig, who died of heart and lung wounds, and another man who was badly injured.
Sheikhi was detained soon after together with another Iraqi man, Yousif I.A., who was later released for lack of evidence.
If found guilty the Syrian suspect, who denies the crime, faces up to 15 years in jail.
The killing was shocking, but the subsequent riots threw a harsh spotlight on Chemnitz, which has long had an extremist subculture.
In the 1990s the city was an early hideout for the National Socialist Underground, a militant neo-Nazi cell of three that was only uncovered in 2011 after they had murdered 10 people.
Amid the unrest last year, local Jewish, Turkish and Iranian restaurants also became targets of xenophobic vandalism.
Last October police arrested eight men accused of having formed the far-right militant group “Revolution Chemnitz.”
And earlier this month, fans of the fourth-tier football club Chemnitzer FC paid tribute to a recently deceased figure of the local far-right scene, Thomas Haller.
During a minute’s silence the stadium video screen showed a picture of Haller, the former co-founder of a group called “HooNaRa” (Hooligans-Nazis-Racists), who had for years provided security for the club.