FRANKFURT am MAIN, Germany (AFP) — A German neo-Nazi went on trial Tuesday for the murder of pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke, a killing that shocked the country and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism.
Federal prosecutors say the main suspect, 46-year-old Stephan Ernst, was motivated by “racism and xenophobia” when he allegedly shot Luebcke in the head on June 1, 2019.
Ernst appeared at the higher regional court in Frankfurt alongside co-defendant Markus Hartmann, who is accused of helping him to train with firearms — including the murder weapon.
The killing is believed to be Germany’s first far-right political assassination since World War II.
Some people queued all night to get into the court but seating was limited because of coronavirus social distancing measures.
Both defendants wore face masks as they were led into the courtroom, where they took their seats between plexiglass screens installed to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Luebcke’s widow and his two adult sons attended the opening hearing.
“The family wants to send a clear signal against hatred and violence,” their spokesman Dirk Metz said.
Luebcke, 65, belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union Party and headed the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse.
He supported Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the country’s borders to refugees and spoke in favor of hosting asylum-seekers in a local town.
Prosecutors believe Ernst and his accomplice attended a speech by Luebcke in October 2015 when the politician defended helping refugees, adding that anyone who did not agree with those values was “free to leave the country.”
The remark was widely shared online and turned Luebcke into a hate figure for the far right.
After the speech, Ernst “increasingly projected his hatred of foreigners” on to Luebcke, prosecutors said in the indictment.
After sexual assaults by immigrants against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 and a 2016 Islamist attack in the French city of Nice, Ernst allegedly began tracking Luebcke’s movements.
Between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors say, he worked with Hartmann to improve his skill with firearms, and the two attended right-wing demonstrations together.
In the course of their investigations, prosecutors separately charged Ernst with attempted murder for allegedly stabbing an Iraqi asylum-seeker in the back in 2016.
They also uncovered weapons and ammunition belonging to Ernst, including revolvers, pistols and a submachine gun.
Although Ernst initially admitted killing Luebcke, he retracted his confession and said Hartmann had pulled the trigger.
But prosecutors maintain that while Hartmann “accepted and supported” the danger Ernst posed, he was not aware of concrete attack plans.
Ernst has a long criminal history and was known to police as a neo-Nazi sympathizer.
He was convicted of an attempted bomb attack on an asylee home in 1993. In 2009, German media say he took part in neo-Nazi clashes targeting a union demonstration.
But Ernst then slipped off the security services’ radar, fueling criticism that the authorities were not taking the far-right threat seriously enough.
German police came under fire years earlier for overlooking racist crimes after it emerged that a neo-Nazi terror cell, the National Socialist Underground, had killed 10 people, mainly immigrants, between 2000 and 2007.
In October 2019, just months after Luebcke’s death, Germany was rocked by a shooting at a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle that left two dead. The suspect admitted to anti-Semitic and far-right motives.
In February, another gunman shot dead nine people of immigrant origin in the central town of Hanau.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking in Berlin on Tuesday, urged people to actively take a stand against discrimination and intolerance.
“It’s not enough not to be racist. We must be anti-racist,” he said, and this must be “learned, practiced and lived.”
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat facing Germany.”
He has promised tougher security measures, including a crackdown on online hate speech.
by ANNALENA DÖRNER
© Agence France-Presse