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PEGIDA leader in court

Ben Knight, DresdenApril 19, 2016

PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann has gone on trial for allegedly inciting racial hatred with Facebook comments in which he is said to have described migrants as "cattle" and "scum." Ben Knight reports from Dresden.

Lutz Bachmann with 'censorship 'sunglasses
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Lutz Bachmann entered the courtroom like a rock star in a denim jacket, shirt open at the collar, slicked black hair - plus a pair of sunglasses fashioned to resemble a "censorship" bar covering his eyes. The spectators - most of whom were his supporters - gave the PEGIDA founder the entrance he wanted and applauded when he walked into the Dresden courtroom, and received a warning from the court warden for their trouble.

There was more theater when Bachmann's wife, Vicky, took her seat at his side in the dock, even though she is not accused, sporting the same glasses, as well as a perennially sarcastically amused expression at the court proceedings.

But then a much drearier mood descended, while the mostly bored-looking judge listened as the racial incitement case against Bachmann was played out via the details of when a Facebook post is public, when it isn't, and how one can tell.

The state contends that Bachmann wrote a Facebook comment in which he described migrants as "cattle," "scum" and "trash." The state prosecutors believe that, since the Internet is legally considered a public forum, the comment was enough to bring charges of inciting hatred with the potential to disturb public peace. The 43-year-old Bachmann potentially faces a fine or a maximum of five years in prison.

Public or not?

The comments were posted in September, 2014, before Bachmann was a public figure and before the PEGIDA movement, which he founded, even existed. Crucially for the trial, however, he allegedly posted them on an account visible to several hundred people - and defense attorney Katja Reichel spent much of Tuesday's three-hour opening session arguing that there was no proof that the account was public at all.

Lutz Bachmann - without his 'censorship' sunglasses
Lutz Bachmann - without his 'censorship' sunglassesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Berg

Reichel, tall and consistently withering as she cross-examined witnesses, also argued that since there were several hundred Lutz Bachmann profiles on Facebook, and that any of them could have been faked, there was also no proving that he had written the comments in question.

In a lengthy opening brief, she explained the laborious steps she had taken to try to contact Facebook's German headquarters to extract meta-data, only to conclude that Facebook was a "highly untransparent company." In response, the state attorney Tobias Uhlemann pointed out that the police had long known there was no technical evidence to be retrieved from Internet, and that the state's case rests on other statements by Bachmann, in which he appeared to acknowledge that he had made the comments.

In a video played in court, Bachmann was seen speaking at a PEGIDA rally in February last year, in which he said, "Some screenshots have emerged, which were partly altered and shortened, in which I used a few words that we've all used, I'm sure, in our local pub." The state attorney said there was other evidence like this to produce.

Outrage and arguments

Outside the courtroom there was a febrile atmosphere, as arguments erupted among PEGIDA supporters, journalists, and one or two anti-fascist demonstrators - with angry debates about everything from the Böhmermann affair to the US role in the Second World War. "You're an Americano-fascist!" one Bachmann supporter told an outraged leftist and then stalked off angrily.

The distrust towards the press was palpable, but one PEGIDA supporter, who said he'd been to nearly all the marches, was willing to offer his blunt opinion on the case itself. "It's politically-motivated, it's a show trial," the man, who would identify himself only as Andreas, told DW. "They can't prove that he did that post. They have to prove it and that's impossible."

The video, Andreas added, did not represent any clear evidence, either. "They didn't say he used those three words," he said.

For him, as for Reichel, who brought it up in her opening deposition, the case of Jan Böhmermann's satirical poem about Turkish President Recep Erdogan was relevant. "God knows that was much harder," he said. "There are totally different legal means being used. You really see what this is all about. For me, the whole trial is a farce."

Bachmann supporters rallied in Dresden demanding a 'not guilty' verdict
Bachmann supporters rallied in Dresden demanding a 'not guilty' verdictImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Upstaged by the AfD

Bachmann's Facebook comments came to light in January, 2015, when a former Facebook friend, Susanne K., posted screenshots of them after she'd seen an interview Bachmann gave in which he denied being xenophobic. She - and her mother Annelie, who printed out the screenshots - were both cross-examined on Tuesday. Crucially for the prosecution, Susanne K. testified that she had over 500 friends when Bachmann made the offensive comments on an article she had posted.

At the time the posts came to light, the PEGIDA marches in Dresden were attracting up to 25,000 people a week and massive media attention, and parallel demonstrations were being organized around the country. The charges that led to the trial, as well as an infamous selfie that showed Bachmann with a Hitler haircut and moustache, led him to briefly step down from the movement.

Bachmann himself did not speak to reporters at the trial, but he took to social media in February to dismiss the legal proceedings as "a constructed and politically-motivated trial," whose only purpose was to "discredit" him. "Let's see what the state prosecutor has cobbled together until it fits into the picture they wanted," he wrote on Facebook.

PEGIDA's crowds have since dwindled to around 3,000, and PEGIDA has had the wind taken out of its sails by the success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing party that shares PEGIDA's anti-immigrant, anti-media rhetoric, but inserted into a more professional political context.

Andreas - who said he was also an AfD voter, does not think the PEGIDA movement is over. "They say it's just 3,000 - but you can go to the DIY store in Dresden, you can go into malls, you can go to the checkout at Netto [supermarket] - old people, young people, educated people, less educated people, really the whole of society here, they all talk like PEGIDA."

It is not the first time that Bachmann has seen the inside of a courtroom: He carries convictions for drug dealing, burglary and assault. He was also still on probation for one of these offenses, a factor that is likely to increase any sentence he receives, Dresden state prosecutor Lorenz Haase told news agency EPD. Two more days - May 3 and May 10 - have been allotted for the trial.