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Halle synagogue attacker sentenced to life in prison

December 21, 2020

The far-right extremist who killed two people in the eastern German city of Halle after trying to shoot his way into a synagogue has received the maximum sentence. The five-month trial was an ordeal for some survivors.

Candles and flowers are seen at a makeshift memorial in front of the synagogue in Halle, Germany following the attack
The attack in Halle would have been one of the worst anti-Semitic acts in Germany since World War IIImage: AFP/R. Hartmann

A German court has sentenced the attacker behind a deadly 2019 attack on a synagogue and surrounding areas in Halle to life in prison, the maximum sentence Germany allows.

Far-right extremist Stephan B. was found guilty of two murders and more than 60 counts of attempted murder at the end of his 26-day trial on Monday.

Judge Ursula Mertens noted the particular severity of the crimes, repeatedly describing his murderous acts as "cowardly" and "cruel."

In an occasionally emotional reasoning, Mertens expressed her personal horror at the crimes that the trial had dealt with, occasionally saying she was "at a loss for words."

Describing the murder of 20-year-old Kevin S. in a kebab shop after the attempted attack on the synagogue, she told the defendant, "You executed the defenseless Mr. S. in a cowardly way," before comparing the attacker to his victim: "Unlike you, he didn't retreat into his childhood bedroom — he worked, he enjoyed football, he got qualifications."

Mertens described the defendant as a loner who lived in his childhood bedroom at the age of 27, soaking up "crude conspiracy theories" on the internet and building weapons. The judge said she could not ascertain whether his family could have averted the crimes, but only because they had refused to testify. She said it was obvious no one had tried to disabuse him of his extremist worldview.

The defendant remained mostly impassive as the judge read out her reasoning, which lasted almost three hours, though he occasionally grinned and rolled his eyes.

"You are a danger to humanity," Mertens told the defendant, pointing out that he had shown no remorse and when he spoke in court only repeated his "absurd" ideology. She said she could think of no other way to protect society from that danger than to keep him locked up.

When the judge concluded her statement, the defendant suddenly threw a file of papers, which he had apparently rolled up in the final few minutes, at the co-plaintiffs. He ended up being dragged from his chair and pulled out of the courtroom by three guards.

Attacker denied Holocaust, planned massacre

The Halle attack itself shook Germany. On October 9 last year, Stephan B. attempted to blast his way into the city's synagogue,where 51 people were observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. He failed largely because his arsenal of homemade firearms and explosives couldn't breach the locked outer gates.

In frustration, he shot dead two other people — 40-year-old passerby Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., a painter eating his lunch in a nearby kebab shop — before firing at several police officers and other passersby as he made his escape.

Despite driving past the police who had by then gathered at the synagogue, he was only detained 90 minutes later, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside the city.

View of the entrance door to a synagogue in Halle that is ridden with bullet holes following an attempted attack
The synagogue's locked gate and CCTV system were all that stood between the attacker and worshippers insideImage: Getty Images/J. Schlueter

A new type of terrorist 

The trial included some 45 co-plaintiffs, mostly survivors or their relatives, many of whom were present for Monday's sentencing.

The atrocity shocked Germany, not least because of the attacker's intended target: the city's Jewish community, most of which was inside Halle's only synagogue, along with Jewish visitors from the US and elsewhere.

Had he succeeded in breaking through the outer gate, Stephan B. would have been responsible for one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in postwar Germany. His defense attorney Hans-Dieter Weber compared the crime to those committed by the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism in Germany

It offered little relief that Stephan B. had seemingly acted alone. Unlike most of the other far-right terrorists that Germany has seen in the past few years, Stephan B. was not a member of any neo-Nazi terrorist cell, like the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and had not joined any extremist political group.

Instead, he represented a globalized type of the "lone" terrorist almost new to Germany until now: Young men radicalized by a globe-spanning internet community of often isolated young men that convenes on unmoderated forums known as "imageboards."

Some believed the court had missed an opportunity to explore this. Mark Lupschitz, a lawyer for the co-plaintiffs, said the judge's personal and occasionally even emotional approach in the final ruling had been "surprising," but he said the judge had "depoliticized" the crime. 

"We heard little context, in other words how the perpetrator became radicalized," he told DW afterwards. "The verdict gave us the feeling that we were dealing with a single perpetrator who just came out of his childhood bedroom."

"But that is simply not the case," he said. "There was a network. It might have been a rather newer network, a newer structure in the history of crime, but that is what terrorism is like nowadays."

Because they thrive by being unmoderated, many imageboards have become breeding grounds for unfiltered anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racist and misogynist content. Attacks such as the Christchurch mosques massacre in March 2019 and Halle have been streamed live onto such channels, specifically to inspire and encourage other people.

Apparent reluctance to investigate this virulent subculture by the police was a consistent theme during the trial, angering some of the survivors. Testifying as witnesses, some of the officers admitted they had known little about the internet-based culture that radicalized the defendant.

"What was surprising was how unpolitical, and how un-empathetic to those affected the verdict was," said attorney Kristin Pietrzyk, who also represented survivors, many of whom had complained about insensitive handling by police. "We had people affected here who spoke very openly about how they were discriminated against by police – that wasn't mentioned once."

Survivors 'relieved and empowered' but also frustrated

There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom, where anti-racism campaigners had set up a tent on each of the trial days, and where several of the survivors and their lawyers gathered one last time to show their solidarity and to address the media.

Naomi Henkel-Gümbel, one of the synagogue survivors, delivered a speech excoriating reporters for what she said was their complicity in spreading the defendant's message by showing his face and quoting him.

Like many of the co-plaintiffs, she was extremely disappointed by the judgment, especially the judge's apparent failure to explore his radicalization. "It seemed as though the internet was something new for the judge," she told DW. "But during the trial, she gave a lot of space to the co-plaintiffs and the experts who the co-plaintiffs called as witnesses."

She was also angry that two of the co-plaintiffs, Ismet T. and Aftax I., were not recognized as victims of attempted murder as they had demanded. Ismet T., who also spoke at the event afterwards, had been outside the kebab shop, while Aftax I. was hit by the defendant's car.

But others acknowledged that the consistent presence of the co-plaintiffs throughout the trial had made it unique in Germany, where there have been consistent complaints about how survivors of terrorism are treated by courts.

Lupschitz, who represented nine of the synagogue survivors, said his clients felt "relieved and empowered" by the conclusion of the trial, "and by the fact that they took part in the trial, that they were taken seriously, and they were given the space to tell their stories."

*DW has withheld last names in accordance with German privacy laws.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight