Five local lawmakers have been sentenced for election fraud in western Germany. Among them is a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has drawn criticism for his trips to Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
A regional court in the western German city of Osnabrück this week handed down sentences for five individuals — four of them members of the socialist Left Party — found guilty of election fraud. Four of the defendants, who ran for city council in Quakenbrück, Lower Saxony, were given suspended prison sentences on Monday of between seven and 18 months. Among them was Andreas Maurer, who heads the Left Party in the region. He received a suspended sentence of seven months and one week. A fifth individual was ordered to pay a fine for aiding and abetting election fraud.
Maurer, a 48-year-old former postman, was born in Kazakhstan and moved to Germany in the late 1980s. He made headlines in Germany recently for traveling to Russian-occupied Crimea and visiting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donbass region. He also appeared on Russian television talk shows, in which he called for western sanctions against Moscow to be lifted and for Crimea to be recognized as a part of Russia, and met Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This year alone, Maurer visited Crimea twice — despite objections by Ukraine's ambassador in Berlin. Currently, foreigners need a permit from Ukrainian authorities if they want to visit the peninsula and are obliged to use a Ukrainian border crossing to do so. Foreigners who instead travel to Crimea via Russian territory risk being refused entry into Ukraine.
An election result that raised eyebrows
Many were surprised when Germany's Left Party received more than 60 percent of votes in Quakenbrück, which has a large immigrant population, in the 2016 local elections — far more than its average support base in the region.
Complaints ensued, and an investigation revealed that signatures on applications for absentee ballots did not match those on the respective ballots. It later transpired that the accused individuals had convinced voters with little or no command of the German language to request absentee ballots, which the politicians themselves then filled in, putting a mark next to their own name and faking voters' signatures. In this way, one of the now sentenced politicians secured a total of 558 absentee votes for himself — while later only receiving six votes in person on election day.
Ultimately, a partial snap election was held. Three of the four accused politicians were again voted onto the city council – despite losing a substantial number of votes. One decided to withdraw his candidacy. Now that all four have been sentenced, they will most likely lose their political posts. The sentence means that for four years, all of the accused will lose the right to be elected a delegate.
A difficult trial
Before the trial came to an end, Maurer told DW he expected to be acquitted. The Osnabrück court's decision is not yet final and Maurer's lawyers intend to appeal. Maurer himself told journalists he would remain tenacious, and has dismissed calls to resign. He says the court decision is politically motivated, and describes the evidence presented against him as "insufficient."
Prosecutors did in fact struggle to prove the politicians were involved in election fraud because, among other reasons, 65 witnesses questioned repeatedly made false statements to protect the accused, according to the presiding judge.
Maurer says he wants to remain politically active, regardless of whether his appeal before a higher court is successful or not — even if that means he can no longer be involved in local politics or travel to Crimea as a German delegate. His appearances on Russian TV, according to him, no longer has an official political context. He says he now engages in "peoples' diplomacy" and stressed to DW, "of course I will continue to travel wherever I want."