Judges on Thursday convicted asylum seeker Alaa Sheikhi of manslaughter and dangerous bodily harm in the killing of a German national in August 2018.
Defence lawyers appealed the verdict. They said there was no evidence the 24-year-old defendant had helped stab Hillig and suggested the court had been swayed by the political debate in the high-profile case.
But chief justice Simone Herberger said she saw “no doubt about his guilt”.
The verdict comes barely a week before elections in the two eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to make big gains.
The trial took place in Dresden, the capital of Saxony, rather than Chemnitz, for security reasons and because of what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest”.
The court heard that a fugitive Iraqi, a 22-year-old identified only as Farhad A, was the first to confront 35-year-old Daniel Hillig in the early hours of August 26 last year. He and Sheikhi then stabbed Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots. The victim died of internal injuries.
Sheikhi, who arrived in Germany during the 2015 refugee influx to Europe, was arrested hours after the attack, together with another Iraqi who was later released for lack of evidence.
The main suspect in the case is still being sought on an international arrest warrant.
Sheikhi, who denies the charges against him, remained silent throughout much of the trial. He spoke only on the last day to say he hoped “the truth is brought to light and a fair verdict is given”.
Ricarda Lang, a defence lawyer, argued 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”.
Following the killing, thousands of neo-Nazis, members of AfD, and football hooligans assembled in Chemnitz to protest against migration.
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.
The violence also spurred counterdemonstrations by supporters of immigration in Chemnitz.
The AfD welcomed the verdict against Sheikhi. In a post on Facebook, it said it hoped the Iraqi suspect would be found soon and added that Chemnitz had been unfairly “branded as a playground for right-wing radicals”.
Opinion polls show that the AfD could become the biggest party in Saxony and Brandenburg in the September 1 elections.