Man Charged With Murder on Behalf of Russia On Trial in Berlin

Man Charged With Murder on Behalf of Russia On Trial in Berlin

Man Charged With Murder on Behalf of Russia On Trial in Berlin

Man Charged With Murder on Behalf of Russia On Trial in Berlin

BERLIN — The trial opened on Wednesday for a Russian man accused of murdering a former Chechen field commander in a Berlin park last year, allegedly at the behest of the Russian state.

The killing, which occurred in August 2019 in a park just over a mile away from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office, occurred amid increasingly bold provocations from Russia. German investigators blame Moscow for a 2015 cyberattack on Parliament and for a disinformation campaign on German-language Russian news media targeting Berlin’s policy on refugees the following year.

This August, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny arrived in Berlin for treatment after being poisoned with what German experts found to be a military-grade chemical substance. These events have led to a hardening of Germany’s traditionally open stance toward Moscow.

In the indictment over the Berlin murder, federal prosecutors charged that the “state agencies of the central government of the Russian Federation ordered the accused to liquidate” the victim, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who was said to be an opponent of the Russian state.

Germany’s federal prosecutors have identified the accused Russian man, who followed the trial through a Russian interpreter, as Vadim N. Krasikov, 55, although his lawyer read a statement from the defendant naming him as Vadim A. Sokolov, 50. The latter name matches the information in a passport found on him when he was arrested on Aug. 23, but German investigators have said they believe the name is an alias.

“I will refer to you as ‘the defendant,’” Judge Olaf Arnoldi said as the trial opened, acknowledging the confusion over the man’s identity.

Moscow has denied any link between the killing and “official Russia.” But Germans officials say that the Russian authorities have refused to cooperate in the investigation, despite several formal requests.

A guilty verdict for Mr. Sokolov would mean a sentence of life in prison. But it could have even larger implications for German-Russian relations, as Ms. Merkel’s government would be under increased pressure to react, given the brazenness of the killing and the opportunity to send a clear message to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. A ruling is not expected until next year.

The trial opened one day after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the findings of experts in Germany that the substance used to poison Mr. Navalny had “similar structural characteristics” to the Novichok family of highly potent nerve agents.

The German government said in a statement on Tuesday that the European Union and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would discuss their next steps in the coming days.

Weeks after the murder, Ms. Merkel’s government expelled two Russian diplomats, and Moscow retaliated with a tit-for-tat move.

Since then, no further action has been taken, but Ms. Merkel’s tone has grown harsher. In May, she stood before the German Parliament and called Russia out.

“There is a strategy from Russia that we must take into account — we cannot simply ignore it: the strategy of hybrid warfare, which includes cyberwarfare and distortion of the facts,” she told lawmakers. “This is not just somehow a random product, but it is definitely a strategy that is being applied.”

It is a far cry from the more pro-Russian stance shaped by her junior coalition partners in government, the Social Democrats.

“Of course, we retain the right to take action against Russia,” Ms. Merkel told Parliament.

The killing on Aug. 23, 2019, shocked Berlin.

The victim, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen separatist commander, had been living in Germany since December 2016, when he applied for asylum after arriving.

Russia considered him an enemy of the state and a terrorist, accusing him of membership in the Caucasus Emirate, the most active militant group in Russia, according to the indictment. He had fought the Russians in Chechnya from 2000 to 2004, when separatists in the predominantly Muslim region were seeking independence.

He was on his way to a mosque for prayers in central Berlin when a man riding a bicycle approached him from behind and shot him.

The victim fell to ground, and the gunman fired two more shots to his head with a Glock 26 pistol that was equipped with a silencer.

The gunman then fled the park toward the nearby Spree River, where he threw the bike and other objects into the water and quickly changed his clothes, prosecutors said. Two teenagers spotted him and called the police.

The police then arrested the defendant as he attempted to rent an electric scooter.

The officers found 3,720 euros in cash (nearly $4,000) and a newly issued non-biometric Russian passport without a memory chip. That document identified the arrested man as Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, the name the defendant insists is his true identity.

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