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Syrian man denies knife killing that sparked Chemnitz protests

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Syrian man denies knife killing that sparked Chemnitz protests
A police officer accompanies Sheikhi to trial. Photo: DPA
14:01 CET+01:00
Defence lawyers for a Syrian man on trial in Germany insisted Monday he is innocent of a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz last year.

Counsel for asylum seeker Alaa Sheikhi, 23, also asked whether any of the judges and lay judges hearing the case have sympathies with the far-right Pegida movement or AfD party which reject immigrants and Islam.

"The attitude of the judges in the refugee question is decisive for a fair trial," said defence lawyer Ricarda Lang, arguing that her client, who came to Germany during the 2015 migrant influx, was seen by AfD followers as the "declared enemy".

SEE ALSO: Man goes on trial over killing that sparked far-right protests in Chemnitz

The manslaughter trial is being held not in Chemnitz but in another city of the ex-communist Saxony state, its capital Dresden, for security reasons and because of what the court called the "extraordinarily high public interest".

Prosecutors charge that the Syrian, together with an Iraqi man still at large but subject to an Interpol warrant, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in a late-night street fight last August.

News of the killing spread within hours on social media and led enraged far-right football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and neo-Nazis to march through Chemnitz.

Mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.

Police braced for more potential trouble Monday as hundreds of extremists were gathering for the Chemnitz funeral of a local neo-Nazi.

The proceedings started a week after an Iraqi man went on trial in the western city of Wiesbaden for the murder and rape of a teenage girl, in another case that inflamed anti-immigrant tensions last year.   

Late-night fight

A year ago, as the AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements repeatedly marched in Chemnitz, a political fight also raged in Berlin about whether the violence amounted to organised "hunts" of ethnic minorities.

In a controversy that shook Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, domestic spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen, an outspoken critic of her liberal immigration policy, eventually had to step down.

SEE ALSO: Why Germany's controversial spy chief Maaßen is finally being pushed out

Given the political shock waves, the trial is being held under tight police guard in Dresden, where hearings have been scheduled until October 29, with more than 65 witnesses.

Defence lawyers had unsuccessfully requested it be held outside Saxony, the birthplace of Pegida, short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident.

Lang also argue that the case against their client is weak, as police reportedly lack DNA evidence, fingerprints or other forensic proof.

Relying in large part on witness testimony, prosecutors say the argument started near a kebab stand around 3:00 am on August 27 after a town festival.

The fugitive Iraqi, 22-year-old Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, said prosecutors.

Both Arab men then allegedly stabbed Hillig, who died of heart and lung wounds, and another man who was badly injured.

Sheikhi was detained soon after together with another Iraqi man, Yousif  I.A., who was however later released for lack of evidence. If found guilty, Sheikhi faces up to 15 years in jail.


Neo-Nazi funeral

The killing was shocking, but the subsequent riots threw a harsh spotlight on Chemnitz, which has long had an extremist subculture.

In the 1990s the city was an early hideout for the National Socialist Underground, a militant neo-Nazi cell of three that was only uncovered in 2011 after they had murdered 10 people.

Amid the unrest last year, local Jewish, Turkish and Iranian restaurants also became targets of xenophobic vandalism.

Then, last October, police arrested eight men accused of having formed the far-right militant group "Revolution Chemnitz".

And earlier this month, fans of the fourth-tier football club Chemnitzer FC paid tribute to a recently deceased figure of the local far-right scene, Thomas Haller.

During a minute's silence the stadium video screen showed a picture of Haller, the former co-founder of a group called "HooNaRa" (Hooligans-Nazis-Racists), who had for years provided security for the club.

On Monday, police ramped up their presence in Chemnitz as several hundred mourners dressed in black were gathering for Haller's funeral.

SEE ALSO: Merkel to visit Chemnitz after murder, growing unrest

 
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