BERLIN (AP) — A Russian accused of killing a Georgian man in broad daylight in downtown Berlin on Moscow's orders went on trial for murder Wednesday, in a case that has contributed to growing frictions between Germany and Russia.
The defendant Vadim Krasikov, using the alias Vadim Solokov, traveled to the German capital last August on the orders of the Russian government to kill a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity who fought Russian troops in Chechnya, prosecutor Ronald Georg said.
"State agencies of the central government of the Russian Federation gave the defendant the contract to liquidate the Georgian citizen with Chechen roots," Georg told the court, reading the indictment.
"The defendant took the contract, either for an unknown sum of money or because he shared the motive of those who gave the contract to liquidate the (victim) as a political enemy in revenge for his role in the second Chechen war and participation in other armed conflict against the Russian Federation."
No pleas are entered in the German trial system, and the defendant made only a short statement as the trial began under tight security and coronavirus precautions, saying that he had been misidentified and was a 50-year-old born in Russia, not a 55-year-old born in Kazakhstan as alleged.
"I am Vadim Adreyevich Sokolov, not Vadim Nikolayevich Krasikov," he said through his attorney Robert Unger. "Such a person is not known to me."
Presiding Judge Olaf Arnoldi took the unusual step of advising Krasikov of his right to remain silent before asking him basic personal details, saying that in this case even those statements could be self-incriminating.
After the Aug. 23, 2019, killing, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats last December over the case, prompting Russia to oust two German diplomats in retaliation.
If the allegations against the suspect are proved in court, the case has the potential to exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Berlin, which have also been fueled by allegations of Russian involvement in the 2015 hacking of the German parliament and the theft of documents from Chancellor Angela Merkel's own office, as well as the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny fell ill on a flight in Russia on Aug. 20, landing in a Siberian hospital. Two days later, he was transferred on Merkel's personal invitation to Berlin's Charite hospital, where doctors concluded he had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent.
Moscow has dismissed accusations of involvement in the Navalny case and denied ties in the parliamentary hacking, even though Merkel herself said there was "hard evidence" of the latter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has also called the allegations of Russian involvement in the Berlin killing "absolutely groundless."
After Merkel confronted Putin about the killing at a meeting in Paris in December, the Russian leader called the victim, Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a "bandit" and a "murderer," accusing him of killing scores of people during fighting in the Caucasus.
The growing acrimony between the two countries comes at a delicate time, as Germany and Russia work towards the completion of a joint pipeline project to bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic, and work to try and salvage a nuclear deal with Iran that has been unraveling since President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of it in 2018.
Khangoshvili, 40, was a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity who fought Russian troops in Chechnya. He had also volunteered to fight for a Georgian unit against the Russians in South Ossetia in 2008, but peace was negotiated before he took part. He had previously survived multiple assassination attempts and continued to receive threats after fleeing in 2016 to Germany, where he had been granted asylum.
Prosecutors allege the killer approached Khangoshvili from behind on a bicycle in the small Kleiner Tiergarten park, shooting him twice in the torso with a silencer-fitted handgun and knocking him to the ground with the force of the bullets.
"The defendant fell off his bike and then went directly to (the victim) on the ground and fired two shots into his head to ensure he was killed," Georg told the court.
Witnesses saw the suspect disposing of the bike, weapon and a wig in the Spree River near the scene and alerted police, who quickly identified and arrested him before he could flee on an electric scooter he had waiting in a doorway.
He had around $3,350 and about $30 on him that Georg said was to pay his expenses in Berlin and aid in his flight after the crime.
In their indictment, prosecutors allege there is ample evidence indicating official Russian involvement in the crime.
German investigators used facial recognition to match the suspect to a photograph Russia had sent partner agencies in 2014 as it sought help finding Vadim Krasikov in connection with a killing in Moscow. That request was canceled on July 7, 2015, and a person with the identity of Vadim Sokolov first appears on Sept. 3, 2015, with a Russian passport.
On July 18, 2019, Vadim Sokolov obtained a new passport from an official office in the Russian city of Bryansk, which he used to apply for a French visa at the general consulate in Moscow, prosecutors said.
Russian authorities confirmed the suspect's passport, found on him at the time of his arrest, was valid, prosecutors said.
He was granted the visa and flew on Aug. 17, 2019, from Moscow to Paris. In his visa application, prosecutors said the suspect claimed to work for a St. Petersburg firm known as Zao Rust.
Investigators found that Zao Rust had only one employee in 2018 and on April 10, 2019, was listed as being in "reorganization." The company's fax number was one used by two firms that are operated by the Russian Defense Ministry, prosecutors said.
He left Paris on Aug. 20 and flew to Warsaw where he had a hotel booked until Aug. 25. Upon arrival, he extended his room to Aug. 26, but left at 8 a.m. on Aug. 22 and never returned, prosecutors said.
It wasn't clear, they said, what he did between his departure from the hotel and the killing in Berlin at 11:55 a.m. on Aug. 23.
The trial continues with the first witnesses Thursday and is scheduled to run through Jan. 27.
By DAVID RISING Associated Press
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.