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Was the slaying of a Chechen exile in Berlin a hired hit?

Roman Goncharenko | Mikhail Bushuev
August 27, 2019

A Chechen from Georgia was shot dead in Berlin — allegedly by a man from Russia. If it was an act of revenge, two wars may have played a role.

A group of police officers near the scene of the shooting
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Was it a straightforward case of murder, or was the killing of a Chechen asylum-seeker in Berlin politically motivated?

The federal prosecutor's office has yet to get involved in the investigation, but on Monday, a spokesperson told news agency DPA that they were "monitoring for developments." The highest criminal prosecution authority said it would intervene if there were indications that a "foreign power" was involved in the crime. 

The media has also speculated about the possible involvement of the Russian secret service.

Hitmen and revenge?

The attack last Friday in Berlin had echoes of a film plot about former Chechen fighters, hitmen and revenge. Shortly before noon, a man walking through a park in Berlin's Moabit district was killed when a cyclist fired two targeted shots.

The 40-year-old victim was an asylum-seeker of Chechen descent from Georgia. In some Russian and Georgian circles, he is known by the name of Selimkhan K.; he is also known by a second identity, Tornike K.

The suspect was quickly apprehended owing to witness accounts. So far, little is known about him. He is being held in custody and has made no comment on the allegations.

Man in Berlin-Moabit shot
Berlin police officers secure evidence at the park in MoabitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

According to the Berlin public prosecutor's office, he is 49 years old and a Russian passport holder. On Monday, the Russian Embassy in Berlin said it was "in contact" with the German authorities.

Not far from the crime scene, police retrieved a bicycle presumed to have been used by the fleeing attacker, along with a wig and the alleged murder weapon, a 9 mm Glock 26 pistol, from the Spree River.

Who was Selimkhan K.?

A profile of the victim, which can be put together from various sources, provides indications of possible motives for the incident.

Selimkhan K. has lived in Germany since 2016. He comes from the Georgian Pankisi valley — which is on the border with Chechnya, a republic of Russia, in the North Caucasus.

This remote mountain region was the scene of the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999 and lasted for about a decade. Chechen separatist fighters and Islamist militants hid there from Russian troops.

Selimkhan K. is said to have fought against Russia as a separatist.

War in Chechnya
This undated photo shows warlords in the Second Chechen War: Shamil Bassaev (m.) and Abu Al Valid (2nd from right)Image: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

In a 2017 letter that has been made available to DW, Ekkehard Maaß, head of the German-Caucasian Society in Berlin, wrote to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF): "During the Second Chechen War, he fought first under Shamil Bassaev, then under the Arab leader Abu Valid."

The infamous Chechen warlords Bassaev and Valid, the latter born in Saudi Arabia, were killed by Russian units.

In the letter to BAMF, Maaß also mentions the Russian-Georgian war, when Selimkhan K. is said to have set up a group of "200 volunteers to defend Georgia in South Ossetia" in August 2008. But the group was not deployed.

On top of this, many media outlets are reporting that Selimkhan K. worked together with the Georgian Interior Ministry. It is said that he acted as a "mediator" during a hostage situation in 2012.

Not a one-off case?

Maaß describes Selimkhan K. as his "friend," who had been "neither an Islamist threat nor a terrorist." Some media reports said the German authorities had initially classified him as a dangerous Islamist but later retracted this classification.

In a letter to the BAMF, Maaß had requested protection for Selimkhan K. because he was receiving "threatening" SMS and WhatsApp messages in Germany. He also said he had been a victim of attacks in the past, most recently in Tbilisi in 2015.

War in Chechnya
Revenge for an incident during the Second Chechen War? Chechen fighters in 1996 (File photo)Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Nikishin

If Selimkhan K. is confirmed to have been executed, this would set a precedent for Germany — but it would also mark a continuation of Chechens being targeted across the globe. 

In 2009, Chechen refugee Umar Israilov — also a former fighter in the Chechen war — was shot dead on a street in Vienna. Three Chechens living in Austria were convicted of the crime.

Several prominent Chechen militants have been killed in Turkey and the Gulf region. Ekkehard Maass told DW he considers the murder of Selimkhan K. to be part of a pattern of similar cases.