A German national has gotten a mild sentence after admitting to taking part in the east Ukraine conflict. He stayed with the pro-Russian rebels for two years, but exactly what he did in the conflict zone remains unclear.
A German court found Kyrgyzstan-born Alex D. guilty of "jeopardizing state security" on Wednesday over his participation in the east Ukraine conflict. The 43-year-old factory worker had spent two years among the pro-Russian rebels.
German laws forbid mercenaries from taking part in military conflicts abroad. However, Alex D.'s punishment for his illegal adventure in Ukraine is little more than a slap on the wrist: the court has taken into account his admission of guilt and sentenced him to two years parole. He even hopes to keep his job in the furniture factory in the town of Löhne in northwest Germany. Alex views it as a "chance of a normal life."
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While in Donbass, the militant's life was far away from any idea of "normal." On one of the photos presented during trial, Alex is seen posing on a tank, others show him with an AK47, or with other mercenaries in uniform. It is hard to tell for sure what exactly the 43-year-old was doing for almost two years in the conflict zone. This is what has saved him from prison.
Protecting hospitals with a sniper rifle
Prosecutors in Dortmund are confident that Alex directly took part in combat.
"We see the defendant with a sniper rifle in the photo," prosecutor Christoph Köster said in his final statement. "He says he was only defending a hospital. You don't need a sniper rifle to do that."
Still, the prosecution failed to present enough evidence to support this accusation in court.
Talking to DW, the prosecutor said he had heard similar stories from militants before, specifically from the "Islamic State" fighters who come back from Syria and said they never saw combat, but simply "helped around the house" and "cleaned the toilets."
Alex D. claims his motivation to join the conflict was honorable — he could not stand by and watch children suffering. It is unknown if he himself contributed to any child suffering, but the court took his claim seriously and ordered him to pay €800 to a children's charity. This is a substantial amount for a man who, according to his own words, makes about €1,100 ($1,233) per month putting together furniture.
Immigrant blues: disorientation, crime, drugs
Alex D. was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1975, where he attended elementary school and became a qualified plumber. His parents moved to Germany in 1995, and Alex followed in 2001. He had trouble finding a job in his field and could not speak German very well. "I started drinking, even though I haven't been drinking that much before, I started using drugs and so on," he told the court. He was convicted for several crimes, including rape, assault, and extortion.
The defendant's father is a Ukrainian. When the conflict in Ukraine started in 2014, Alex "took [it] close to heart" and considered his "civic duty" to help the pro-Russian rebels. In August 2014, he traveled to Russia and crossed over into separatist areas in Ukraine. Once in Donbass, Alex joined a less-known separatist militia dubbed The Kalmius Brigade. Alex said that the things he had seen in the conflict zone were "impossible to imagine for those living in peace."
Mercenary on the cheap
The militant says he decided to return to Germany after becoming disillusioned with the separatist-led Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). "While some are stuffing their pockets, others are going away to die," his lawyer Stefan Schlüter said.
Alex himself did not stuff his pockets — he says he was paid €150 per month. In his closing statement, he said that he "realized a lot of things" while in east Ukraine and that he is now ashamed of some of his own actions.
Whether out of remorse, or naivety, Alex flew back to Germany without even attempting to hide where he had been. At the airport, German authorities noticed a burly man wearing a military uniform and large rucksack. When they detained him, Alex D. volunteered his documents issued by the self-proclaimed DNR authorities.
The trial of Alex D. is the second case of a Ukraine conflict veteran being prosecuted in Germany. The first ended in February this year, when a Munich court sentenced militant Sergey Kiselev to two years and three months in jail. Kiselev is a nephew of one of the Kremlin's top media officials, Dmitry Kiselev, the CEO of Russian broadcaster RT.