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RACISM

German ex-soldier gets five and a half years for far-right plot

A German court on Friday sentenced a former soldier to five and a half years in prison for plotting a far-right attack on senior politicians while posing as a Syrian refugee.

Franco Albrecht
Franco Albrecht, 33, stands in the dock in the Frankfurt am Main court. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

“The accused is guilty of planning a serious act of violence endangering the state,” presiding judge Christoph Koller said.

The long-delayed trial shone a spotlight on neo-Nazi sympathies in the ranks of the German military and the effectiveness of the security services in standing up to right-wing extremism — described by the interior minister as the biggest threat facing the country.

“It is the first time in post-war Germany that a member of the armed forces stands accused of planning a terrorist attack,” Annette Ramelsberger, veteran court reporter for the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, said ahead of the verdict.

Defendant Franco Albrecht, a 33-year-old father of three, had been in the dock before the regional superior court in the western city of Frankfurt since May 2021.

The Bundeswehr lieutenant was found to have cited cabinet ministers, MPs and a prominent Jewish human rights activist among his potential targets.

“He wanted to stage an attack with a major political impact,” prosecutor Karin Weingast said in closing arguments.

‘Attitude problem’

Albrecht, who has a full beard and wears his long hair tied in a ponytail, told the court he deceived authorities at the height of the 2015-16 migrant influx, in which more than one million asylum seekers entered Germany.

The soldier, the son of a German mother and an estranged Italian immigrant father, posed as a Christian fruit seller from Damascus called David Benjamin.

Albrecht darkened his skin with makeup to pose as a penniless refugee and hoodwinked immigration officials for 15 months, despite speaking no Arabic.

“Neither Arabic nor details about my story were necessary,” Albrecht testified, describing his conversations with immigration authorities.

READ ALSO: Germany stages country-wide raids against ‘neo-Nazi networks’

He was arrested in 2017 while trying to retrieve a Nazi-era pistol he had hidden in a toilet at Vienna’s international airport, and his fraud was discovered when his fingerprints matched two separate identities.

Soon after his arrest, then defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, now European Commission chief, said Albrecht’s case pointed to a much larger “attitude problem” in the German military.

Von der Leyen’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer ordered the partial dissolution of the KSK commando force in 2020 after revelations that some of its members harboured neo-Nazi sympathies.

‘Mein Kampf’

The court found that Albrecht planned to use both the pistol and other weapons and explosives he had taken from the German army in order to carry out an attack.

But prosecutors during the trial backed away for lack of evidence from an accusation that he plotted to use his false refugee identity to pin the crime on a Syrian.

Albrecht’s lawyers had called for a suspended sentence based solely on weapons law violations, while prosecutors demanded jail time of six years and three months.

Albrecht, who repeatedly expressed anti-Semitic, racist and hard nationalist views before the court during his trial, testified that then-chancellor Angela Merkel had failed to uphold the constitution by welcoming the refugees.

READ ALSO: Suspected neo-Nazi charged with plotting German ‘race war’

Investigations showed he owned a copy of Adolf Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” and stated that immigration was a form of “genocide”.

Albrecht had been free on bail as his trial began but was taken back into custody in February of this year when he was found with Nazi memorabilia and further weapons in his possession, including five machetes under his mattress.

By Sarah Maria Brech with Deborah Cole in Berlin

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RACISM

German president warns of radical threat on riot anniversary

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday warned of new extremist threats to German society as he marked 30 years since the country's worst post-war racist violence.

German president warns of radical threat on riot anniversary

Steinmeier travelled to the northern city of Rostock to commemorate the 1992 rampage when thousands of bystanders applauded as a marauding mob flung stones and petrol bombs at a housing block for asylum seekers.

He said Germany had failed to snuff out hatred and radicalism in the intervening years, as political leaders warn of potential militancy this winter linked to high energy prices, inflation and resumed pandemic measures.

“The risk that the trail of violence hasn’t ended is high,” Steinmeier told the ceremony.

“Particularly now at a time that puts us to the test like nothing in the last decades — a time that demands a lot of us, in which what’s normal is thrown into doubt and restrictions loom.”

READ ALSO: ‘Racism the problem’ – 20 years after Rostock

He said Germany had seen successive “waves” of right-wing extremism, some of it deadly, in the last three decades, noting that opposition to the 2015 refugee influx and coronavirus measures had been harnessed by radical groups.

As the country faces a winter of soaring energy bills due to the Ukraine war along with an anticipated sixth wave of the pandemic, far-right as well as extreme-left activists have announced anti-government protests.

‘Disgrace’

In Rostock in 1992, the targetted building was occupied by Vietnamese migrant workers who had to be evacuated from the burning edifice amid shocking scenes in a country still in the throes of reunifying.

Days of violence in the Lichtenhagen district saw several thousand people chanting “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out!” in ugly images not seen in Germany since the Nazi era.

Steinmeier called the riot a national “disgrace”, saying it was a “miracle” no one was killed in the five-day siege.

Surrounded by survivors of the riot and community leaders, Steinmeier said the scenes were “seared” on the national memory.

“But we can only guess your mortal fear, your sense of abandonment in those hours,” he said.

Steinmeier acknowledged multiple failings including ill-equipped police and a complacent political class that refused to see mounting radicalism in the depressed ex-communist east.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is greeted by residents after his visit to a Buddhist-Vietnamese temple in the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is greeted by local residents after his visit to a Buddhist-Vietnamese temple in the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Büttner

“The violence from back then, that trail of far-right terror, is unfortunately still with us,” he said.

The commemorations were marred earlier when a 13-year-old boy allegedly flashed the outlawed straight-armed Hitler salute behind a reporter while he was on camera. Police said they had identified the juvenile suspect.

There were some 33,900 people in the right-wing extremist spectrum in Germany in 2021, according to a report presented by the BfV federal domestic intelligence agency in June — up from 33,300 in 2020.

Interior Minister Nancy Fäser has said her top security priority is tackling the country’s “biggest threat: right-wing extremism”.

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