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Neo-Nazi found guilty in murder of German politician

January 28, 2021

Neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst has been sentenced to life in prison for the 2019 murder of German politician Walter Lübcke. The trial has raised questions about the ability of German authorities to track extremists.

Stephan Ernst (left) appears in court wearing a face mask
Stephan Ernst (left) was found guilty of murdering German politician Walter LübckeImage: Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool/REUTERS

Neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst, 47, was found guilty of the murder of regional governor Walter Lübcke on Thursday, bringing to an end Germany's first trial for a political assassination since the 1970s. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Judge Thomas Sagebiel also acknowledged the "special gravity" of Ernst's guilt, which will extend the time Ernst will have to spend in prison before he can be considered for parole. For a life sentence in Germany, the minimum is 15 years, but in such circumstances Ernst is unlikely to be considered for parole for at least 22 years.

Expressing sympathy with Lübcke's family, who were present in court as co-plaintiffs, the judge said he recognized that the trial would have been "difficult and painful" for them. "That did not change anything about our task, which was also difficult," he added.

A black and white photo of Walter Lübcke
Lübcke was a strong supporter of Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policiesImage: AFP/S. Pförtner

Lübcke had become a hate figure for the far right following a speech he made in 2015 defending the decision to take in refugees from the Syrian war. But, as the governor's family complained during their plea, he had been left unprotected by intelligence agencies. He was shot dead on the porch of his home in June 2019.

Thursday's verdict attracted an alliance of anti-racist and pro-democracy initiatives, who stood outside the court holding banners declaring their support for democratic values, which they say Lübcke died defending. Among them were children from a high school in Lübcke's home town of Wolfhagen, a school which was named after the governor last year.

Verdict for second defendant 'extremely painful'

Ernst's alleged accomplice, Markus H.*, another known neo-Nazi, was acquitted Thursday of accessory to murder, though he was convicted of an illegal gun possession charge and given a suspended sentence.

Ernst had testified that Markus H. was present at the murder scene, and had made sarcastic remarks to the victim before Ernst fired the deadly shot.

But, though both the prosecution and Lübcke's family considered this version of events true, Ernst's testimony was marred by contradictory accounts of the murder he gave earlier in the trial and on his arrest. At one point, he was apparently incited by a previous defense attorney to testify that Markus H. had pulled the trigger in a tussle with Lübcke.

Walter Lübcke's wife appears in court with their two sons
Lübcke's wife and two sons were present for the verdict on ThursdayImage: Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool/REUTERS

According to the state prosecution, the court also left room for appeal when it said the verdict did not mean that defendant Markus H. was innocent — simply that there were doubts over the evidence. The state prosecution has already said it will appeal the acquittal of Markus H. in federal court.

"There remain from my point of view crimes that have gone unpunished," said state prosecutor Dieter Killmer, addressing reporters after the verdict.

Lübcke family spokesman Dirk Metz said the politician's widow and sons were extremely disappointed with the court's failure to convict Markus H. "Today was a day when the tension was especially great," he told reporters. "The verdict on the second defendant is extremely painful for the family. The family is convinced that both men not only prepared this crime together, but also carried it out together."

Targeted refugee: A 'betrayal in Germany'

The Frankfurt court also ruled on a separate case involving Ernst on Thursday, acquitting him of the attempted murder of Iraqi refugee Ahmed I.* in an incident in January 2016, when Ahmed I. was stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant outside the refugee shelter where he lived.

The neo-Nazi, who lived in the area and had a history of violent attacks on people of Arabic and Turkish background, had been questioned at the time but was not arrested.

New evidence uncovered during the Lübcke murder investigation led prosecutors to file charges over the 2016 stabbing. Most importantly, a knife was found in Ernst's basement that had traces of DNA on it typical for the region that Ahmed I. was from. But the DNA was ultimately found to be inconclusive.

The co-plaintiff's lawyer Alexander Hoffmann had argued that had Ernst's home been searched in 2016, he would have been convicted and never had the opportunity to kill Lübcke.

Ahmed I., the victim of the knife attack, gave a particularly emotional statement.

"I'm very sad, because for the second time I have had to experience a betrayal in Germany," he said in a statement read out by a translator. "From this trial there is one thing I still don't understand: Are you for me or against me? I am 100% certain that if the perpetrator had said, 'Yes I committed this crime, the court would say: 'He's mentally ill, he's lying' … If I leave this country I will certainly not tell people I fled Iraq, I will say: I fled Germany."

Fears over far-right violence against politicians

Lübcke's murder brought new attention to the violent potential of Germany's neo-Nazi scene and the failures of domestic intelligence agencies to keep track of violent extremists — despite having and paying several informants active in the scene.

The murder also threw a spotlight on the increasing danger faced by local politicians in Germany. Many have drawn parallels with the knife attack by a far-right extremist that Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker only narrowly survived in 2015.

"Again and again, mayors who fear for their families have turned to me," Edgar Franke, the German government's commissioner for crime victims, said in a statement after Thursday's verdict.

"The heart of democracy beats in the towns and municipalities. For that reason we must protect local politicians much better than we do up to now."

Demonstrators outside the Lübcke trial
This banner translates to 'Time to end right-wing networks in our security agencies'Image: Ben Knight/DW
Two kids hold up a banner that reads democratic values never die
Protesting against neo-Nazis, demonstrators carried banners that read 'Democratic values are indestructible'Image: Ben Knight/DW

Perhaps the most damning statement was delivered by Mustafa Kaplan, the lawyer representing Ernst and himself the son of a Turkish immigrant, who failed to mention his client at all.

"I can understand if some are disappointed with today's verdict," he said. "Inadequate investigations by the state prosecutor led to an inadequate indictment … this inadequate indictment led to expectations among the co-plaintiffs and the public that could barely have been fulfilled. With hindsight one could say: Any village sheriff would have conducted a better investigation."

*DW has refrained from publishing certain last names due to German privacy laws.

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