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German court convicts Russian in brazen Berlin assassination, links it to Moscow

Parties to the trial of Vadim Krasikov are seen in a courtroom in Berlin on Dec. 15. (Christophe Gateau/AP)
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BERLIN — A court in Berlin on Wednesday convicted a Russian national of the murder of a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity in broad daylight in 2019 and sentenced him to life in prison.

Federal prosecutors called it a political murder ordered by Russia and maintained that Vadim Krasikov is a former colonel in the Russian intelligence service the FSB.

The government agreed, describing the case as “state-mandated murder” and a severe breach of German law and sovereignty, and ordered the expulsion of two Russian diplomats who were described by local media as intelligence agents.

Krasikov was convicted of killing Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili execution-style with three gunshots on Aug. 23, 2019, in the central Berlin park Kleiner Tiergarten after tailing him on a bicycle.

In accordance with prosecutors’ demands, the court ruled that the crimes of 56-year-old Krasikov were particularly grave, a finding that is likely to prevent an early release after 15 years of imprisonment, as is common in the German justice system.

“In June 2019 at the latest, state organs of the central government of the Russian Federation took the decision to liquidate Tornike Khangoshvili in Berlin,” Judge Olaf Arnoldi said, according to Reuters.

Khangoshvili commanded a militia in Chechnya from 2000 to 2004 and fought the Russians, who had branded him a “terrorist.”

Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, told reporters that “we consider this verdict to be a biased, politically motivated decision that seriously aggravates the already difficult Russian-German relations,” according to RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news agency.

He said that an “absurd thesis” of Russian state involvement was woven through the trial but that no convincing evidence of this was ever presented. Calling the conviction “an obvious unfriendly act,” he said Russia would not fail to respond.

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia’s parliament, Leonid Slutsky, suggested that a tit-for-tat expulsion of German diplomats from Russia was likely.

Chechen exiles are being hunted down. Often, the trail leads back to Russia.

German authorities concluded in December 2019 that Russian agents or people linked to them were involved in the killing, and Germany expelled two Russian diplomats. The authorities said Russian officials had not cooperated in the investigation despite repeated high-level requests.

The case is likely to exacerbate tensions between the two countries, already strained over President Vladimir Putin’s support for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Putin’s persecution of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. After being poisoned in Russia, Navalny was treated and recovered in Germany, only to be imprisoned upon his return to Moscow.

The park where the crime occurred is popular and often teeming with activity during the day. Witnesses observed Krasikov approach the victim from behind on a bicycle. He shot the 40-year-old with a silencer, twice in the body. When the victim was on the ground, he fired a final shot into the back of the head.

Subsequently, he was seen changing his clothes in the bushes and fleeing. Following him at a distance, witnesses called the police and he was caught shortly thereafter.

Krasikov’s lawyers maintain that the evidence against their client is dubious and that his identity had not been sufficiently established. At the start of his trial, Krasikov declared through his lawyers that his name was Vadim Sokolov and that he was a 50-year-old engineer with no connections to the Russian state.

The murder was the latest in a number of killings that have fueled accusations that Russia assassinates its political opponents even when they are abroad. Britain has accused Moscow of attacking a former Russian agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England, with a nerve agent in 2018. The pair survived.

Russian agents also were believed to be behind the fatal poisoning in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and former Federal Security Service officer who was living in Britain.

During Krasikov’s trial, Khangoshvili’s relatives submitted a statement to the court maintaining that Russia was trying to “send a message” to its political enemies with the assassination. A lawyer for the relatives asked that Krasikov be disqualified from parole after 15 years if he were to receive a life sentence.

Opponents of Russian-allied Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have in particular been targeted by assassins over the years. The latest was Mamikhan Umarov, who was gunned down outside a shopping center in Austria in July 2020. A Russian suspect fled the scene and was later arrested.

Others have been attacked in Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. Among them was the former acting leader of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was assassinated in a car-bomb attack in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in 2004.

Paul Schemm in London and Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.

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