The judge said the defendants' guilt was negligible. The decision sparked heated discussion, with some saying the men had showed moral courage and others saying the dismissal opened the door to "arbitrary law."
The four men who tied a mentally ill man with refugee status to a tree in Arnsdorf in spring 2016 will walk free without a conviction. After a short deliberation on Monday, the judge decided that the defendants weren't significantly guilty of any major wrongdoing and that there was no public interest in prosecuting them. The case has caused heated discussion in the eastern German town and across the country.
"The judge made a good decision," said Thomas Israel, executive secretary of the district chapter of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in Saxony's Bautzen region, which includes Arnsdorf. "It shows that citizens can still display moral courage without having to be afraid that it could land them in court."
Jürgen Kasek, head of the Greens in the state of Saxony, said he was horrified when he heard that the charges were dismissed.
"The court is saying that the four men's behavior was acceptable," Kasek told DW. "This sends a dangerous signal to vigilante groups across the country, who now feel they have the right to enact arbitrary law. We could see a rise in violence after this."
The room where the trial took place was far too small to hold all interested spectators.
Video of attack
The victim, who was 21 at the time of the assault, could not appear as a witness in court on Monday. He died in January. His body was found just last week, in the woods in central Saxony. Police say the man probably froze to death there in January and that there were no signs of foul play. The homicide division of the local police still took up investigations.
In May 2016, the man entered a supermarket in Arnsdorf, where he was being treated in a local mental hospital, and complained about a phone card that he had purchased earlier in the day. He had already been there twice that day and was escorted back to the mental hospital by police both times.
In a video, the man refuses to put down a bottle of wine. He and the cashier couldn't communicate because of the language barrier, and a voice can be heard suggesting that someone call the police.
But, instead of uniformed officers, the four men who would later go to court appeared. They beat up the victim, yelling "What do you want here? You pig!" and pull him out of the store. Before the video cuts off, a woman is heard saying: "It's a shame we need a neighborhood watch group, isn't it?" The recording does not follow the men outside, where they tied the victim to a tree with cable connectors.
There was great interest in the trial on Monday. Early in the morning, crowds had gathered in front of the court building. Some protesters showed their support of the four defendants with signs reading "Solidarity with Arnsdorf heroes."
After the charges were dismissed, supporters of the men voiced their exhilaration online; critics of what they had done took to the internet to express their despair. On Monday afternoon, #Arnsdorf was trending on Twitter in Germany.
One person wrote on Twitter that Saxony's judiciary "opened the door to Nazi vigilantism" by dismissing the charges.
Kasek, of Saxony's Greens, said he didn't understand the verdict, because the victim didn't try to flee the supermarket last spring and didn't pose a danger to the people around him. That's why, in his opinion, the behavior of the four men wasn't justified.
"They would have only had to call the police," Kasek said. "But they didn't do that."