Berlin’s regional court has sentenced a Russian man to life in prison for a killing in Germany’s capital two years ago that prosecutors say was ordered by Moscow.
The 2019 slaying of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old ethnic Chechen of Georgian nationality, sparked outrage in Germany and inflamed diplomatic tensions between Berlin and Moscow.
The court on Wednesday found 56-year-old Vadim Krasikov guilty of murder.
Prosecutors said the killing was an act of retaliation for Khangoshvili’s participation in the second Chechen war and his “enmity towards the Russian state”.
Khangoshvili was shot dead at close range in broad daylight on August 23, 2019. Police arrested Krasikov later the same day.
Prosecutors alleged that Krasikov travelled to Berlin under the alias Vadim Sokolov days before the murder for a “state-contracted killing”, then shot the victim from behind with a silencer-fitted handgun near the Kleiner Tiergarten park.
With Khangoshvili lying on the ground, Krasikov allegedly fired two more bullets into his head.
Witnesses saw the suspect throw a bike, a gun and a wig in the Spree River near the scene and alerted police, who quickly arrested him before he could make off on an electric scooter parked in a doorway.
The victim’s relatives, who under German law were allowed to take part in the trial as co-plaintiffs, accused Russia last week of trying to “send a message” to its political enemies by killing Khangoshvili, who had claimed asylum in Germany three years earlier.
Judges said Krasikov bore “particularly grave responsibility” for the slaying, meaning he will not be entitled to the automatic parole after 15 years that is customary in Germany.
While no pleas are entered in the German trial system, defence lawyers this week asked the court to acquit their client, claiming a case of mistaken identity.
The Kremlin has previously called the allegations of Russian involvement in the Berlin killing “absolutely groundless” and Moscow on Wednesday slammed the ruling as “political”.
“We consider this verdict to be a biased, politically-motivated decision that seriously aggravates already difficult Russian-German relations,” Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, said in a statement.
The outcome of the trial could stoke fresh tensions between Germany and Russia at a time when the new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to find its foreign policy footing with Moscow.
It comes as Western pressure mounts on Russia over its alleged buildup of troops on the Ukraine border.
Any violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by Russia would have a high price, Scholz told parliament on Wednesday, without spelling out any details, during his first government statement outlining the guidelines for the coming four years of his coalition.
“We are looking with great concern at the security situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border,” Scholz told the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
“Any violation of territorial integrity will have a high price and we will speak with one voice here with our European partners and our transatlantic allies,” he said, adding that he still wanted a dialogue with Russia.