In the trial on the Halle attack, the perpetrator seeks a final eclat. The judge pays tribute to the victims and struggles with composure.
21.12.2020: Memorial action in Magdeburg before the sentencing Photo: Jens Schluter/ddp images
When it is done, when the assassin is sentenced, those affected stand in front of the Magdeburg Regional Court and hold a press conference. They stand next to rally pavilions and banners, it is cold. "This trial should become a precedent," says Naomi Henkel-Gumbel. Because those affected were given a voice here, because they were given space. And yet, she says, something has to change in the way right-wing extremist ideologies are dealt with in this country. "This is not a wake-up call, this is an invitation."
Noami Henkel-Gumbel was among the 51 worshippers who attended the 9th. October 2019 had visited the synagogue in Halle to celebrate Yom Kippur. And who almost fell victim to a massacre. Shortly before their statement on Monday, the man responsible was sentenced in the Magdeburg court. The 28-year-old right-wing extremist received life imprisonment, with special severity of guilt and subsequent preventive detention. The maximum sentence.
The right-wing extremist failed in October 2019 at the locked synagogue door, but killed a passerby, Jana L., and in the nearby "Kiez-Doner" the painter apprentice Kevin S. He shot at other passers-by, some of whom were seriously injured. The act was a beacon, one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in this country in decades. The Magdeburg court has been hearing the case since July, for 26 trial days. Now Judge Ursula Mertens is bringing the matter to a close. And she does it impressively.
Mertens has been the presiding judge for 13 years, and normally she pronounces her verdicts freely. This time, however, the 57-year-old wrote everything down, on more than 30 pages. "In order not to lose her composure," Mertens says. And yet she will struggle for composure several times in her nearly three-hour closing statement.
"A cowardly inhuman act"
The judge calls the right-wing extremist attack a "despicable, cowardly, inhuman act." The perpetrator had committed it out of "crude conspiracy theories" that lacked any logic. "His cowardly attack had nothing to do with a fight." He had "plunged victims and relatives into deep suffering." He is guilty of double murder and 63 counts of attempted murder, he said. He must also pay 4,000 and 5,000 euros in damages for pain and suffering to two police officers who requested it. He must also compensate three other victims.
Mertens puts the murder of Jana L. first in her statement of reasons for the verdict. The 40-year-old was full of life, a singer in a choir, and for her October 9, 2019 was a completely normal day. Unsuspecting, she says, she encountered her killer outside the synagogue, who shot her abruptly when she asked what he was doing. "She didn’t stand a chance," Mertens says. Her family’s life is now destroyed, and her mother did not have the strength to participate in the trial until the very end, Mertens says.
That’s how the judge will proceed over the next few hours. She will once again make all those affected by the attack visible, praising several of them as "heroes" because they tried to protect others or stop the perpetrator. And it will contrast the resumes with the convicted man, who after dropping out of college sat in his mother’s nursery for six years doing nothing but hanging out on the Internet on gaming and chat portals.
It was foreseeable that Mertens would hand down the maximum sentence. The assassin had documented his deed himself in an online livestream; he defended it in the courtroom without being purged. He lamented only that he killed two ultimately uninvolved "whites." He tried to stage the act as a defensive struggle for his country, against Jews and Muslims. In the hall, he continued to provoke the victims with smirks and interjections. Above all, however, those affected there raised their voices, called the accused a failure and declared that they would continue to live their faith, now more than ever.
The judge is at a loss for words
The defenders of the accused had still tried to relativize at least the attack on the synagogue, after all the assassin had given up the intrusion here himself. Mertens, however, does not accept that. "He was sinisterly determined to kill people," she says, "people who wanted nothing more than to celebrate a high festival." Of course, she says, it was attempted murder, in all 51 cases.
Then she turns to the "Kiez-Doner" where Kevin S. was killed. The 20-year-old had still hidden behind a refrigerator and pleaded for his life. "Shut up, man," the assassin had only barked and pulled the trigger. Mertens speaks of an execution. "I don’t have the words to evaluate this objectively, as is my job." This murder, he said, was on "the very lowest level." Kevin S., too, had made something of his life, despite his handicap, had fought for a painter’s apprenticeship. She addresses the assassin directly: "He didn’t retreat to the nursery, unlike you." Among the audience, Kevin’s mother is already in tears by then.
It is one of those moments when Mertens also struggles. Shortly after, this will happen again, when she talks about Adiraxmaan Aftax Ibrahim, whom the right-wing extremist almost ran over with his getaway car. The Somali could not come to the sentencing because he was currently "slaving" for an Internet trade. In 2015, he had come to Germany, experienced hostility here, and then the day of the attack. Mertens addresses him, even if he is not there. "It’s not easy for you, in a country that is supposed to offer you protection." Then her voice breaks, Mertens falters, has to collect herself again.
The hitting of the man, in which he suffered abrasions, Mertens senate nevertheless does not evaluate as an attempted murder, but as negligent bodily injury. It could not be proven that the perpetrator actually wanted to drive around him. The shooting of Ismet Tekin, operator of the "Kiez-Doner", is also not considered an attempted murder. He had been caught in the hail of bullets fired by the assassin at police officers. Both victims had asked emphatically that the act against them be judged as an attempted murder.
Still "massively dangerous"
Mertens turns to the other victims. The couple from Wiedersdorf outside Halle, from whom the assassin wanted to extort a new car on his escape. Jens Z. he shot in the neck, Dagmar M. in the thigh. "You did what you do best, you shot from behind," Mertens says coolly. The couple is also severely traumatized to this day, he says; they can no longer return to their house because Dagmar M. can no longer climb stairs. To this day, the woman is unable to work.
The convicted man is led out of court Photo: Ronny Hartmann/afp/Pool/dpa
And the judge thanks the two police officers who finally arrested the assassin. To this day, however, they are not honored, Mertens expresses surprise. At a commemorative event, one of the two had not been a guest, but a security guard.
The victims, on the other hand, had criticized during the trial how insensitively police officers had dealt with them on the day of the attack and how little the right-wing extremist online network of the perpetrator had been illuminated. Mertens also calls the right-wing extremist a lone perpetrator who, however, had sought and found like-minded people on the Internet. And she takes the investigators to task. Their task was to trace the activities of the defendant on the Internet, not to provide a general picture of the situation.
The judge, however, openly criticized the family of the assassin. How could it be that this one let the son live isolated in his room for years without pulling him out of his lethargy, without sending him to a psychologist? "Nobody led him back. Possibly no one wanted this either."
That the perpetrator continues to be "massively dangerous" is beyond Mertens’ doubt. She says it directly to his face. "You are a misanthrope." The convicted man had defended his actions without remorse and declared that his fight was not over. During the trial, he had appeared with disturbing emotional coldness. When one of the victims asked him whether he had also killed children, the defendant had answered in the affirmative. These could also become enemies. "This sentence alone would basically already establish the special severity of guilt," says Mertens. The judge also does not see a diminished culpability. The assassin knew exactly that his actions were not permitted.
Dragged out of court
The convicted man looks at Mertens, but follows her words largely motionless. Only when the judge denies his political motive does he raise his eyebrows or mutter to himself, shaking his head. At the end, he looks for another eclat. When Mertens closes the trial, he takes his red loose-leaf binder and throws it at the victims and their lawyers. Police officers immediately overpower him and drag him out of the courtroom. It is a conclusion as symptomatic as it is pathetic.
The convict will now spend many years in prison, perhaps forever. Even in preventive detention, release will be considered at some point. But if the detainee is still considered dangerous, he will remain in custody. And the Halle assassin left no doubt that he is.
Those affected had also demanded the maximum sentence for him. But for them, there was more at stake. They also demanded answers to their open questions. Did the defendant really radicalize himself unnoticed? With whom was he networked online? Do the authorities keep a close enough eye on the far-right threat?
Some of them receive the verdict with disappointment. The fact that his case was not considered an attempted murder is a "huge disappointment," says Ismet Tekin, the "Kiez-Doner" owner. Of course, he says, he too was a victim; the perpetrator shot everyone he saw. "But we won’t give up, no matter what the verdict," Tekin says. "We will do the best we can for this society and do what we can together."