Syrian sentenced for deadly German knifing that sparked far-right protests

Alaa Sheikhi, 24, whose murder of Daniel Hillig on August 26, 2018, led to extremist rallies against Muslim immigration, gets 9.5 years in prison

People attend a far-right demonstration in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, September 7, 2018 (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
People attend a far-right demonstration in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, September 7, 2018 (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A 24-year-old Syrian man was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in jail Thursday for a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz.

The court found 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 last year.

Defense lawyers appealed the verdict, arguing that the court had buckled under social and political pressure, but chief justice Simone Herberger said she saw “no doubt about his guilt.”

The manslaughter conviction comes at a sensitive time, one year after thousands of neo-Nazis and enraged citizens marched through Chemnitz, and 10 days before state elections in the formerly communist region.

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

Syrian defendant Alaa Sheikhi stands next to an interpreter, left, and his lawyer Ricarda Lang, right, in a courtroom in Dresden during a hearing in his trial over a 2018 knife killing that sparked far-right street violence and protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, on August 22, 2019. (Matthias Rietschel/Pool/AFP)

The court heard that the fugitive Iraqi, a 22-year-old identified only as Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots.

Both he and Sheikhi then stabbed Hillig, who died of internal injuries, 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.

Defense lawyer Ricarda Lang had argued that the case against Sheikhi was based only on questionable, late-night witness testimony rather than fingerprints, DNA or other forensic evidence.

Lang also asserted, shortly before the verdict, that the court was “not unaffected by the political situation in Chemnitz” and may convict the defendant because “someone needs to take the blame so that Chemnitz stays quiet.”

German judge Simone Herberger waits in the courtroom on the last day of the trial of Syrian defendant Alaa Sheikhi over a 2018 killing that sparked far-right street violence and protests in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, on August 22, 2019 in Dresden, eastern Germany. (Matthias Rietschel/Pool/AFP)

Far-right hotbed

The trial was held not in Chemnitz but in Saxony’s state capital Dresden, for security reasons and because of what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest.”

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 at the time became targets of xenophobic vandalism.

As the extremist AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements marched in Chemnitz, and anti-fascist groups organized large counter-protests, a political fight also raged in Berlin.

In this photo from October 5, 2017, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, arrives for a public hearing at the parliamentary control committee of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, file)

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, questioned her assessment that the violence amounted to organized “hunts” of ethnic minorities.

Maassen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), eventually had to step down. But he has recently been touring eastern Germany with speaking engagements outlining his stance on immigration and security.

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.

People attend a concert to protest far-right rallies on September 3, 2018, in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. (AFP Photo/John MacDougall)

Last October, police arrested eight men accused of having formed the far-right militant group “Revolution Chemnitz,” assaulted migrants and plotted further attacks.

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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