BERLIN — A German court ruled Wednesday that the Russian state had orchestrated the murder of a Chechen former separatist fighter in a Berlin park in the summer of 2019 and sentenced the Russian citizen convicted of pulling the trigger to life in prison.
Though German authorities had previously concluded that the Russian intelligence services were probably involved in the killing, the murder trial in Berlin was a rare instance in which the covert actions of the Russian government to eliminate an enemy on foreign territory were held up to judicial scrutiny.
The new German government wasted little time in responding. Shortly after the verdict was announced, the German Foreign Ministry told Russia’s ambassador that it would be expelling two Russian diplomats, reprising the heightened tensions after the killing that had led to expulsions on both sides.
“This murder on state orders — as determined by the court today — constitutes a serious violation of German law and Germany’s sovereignty,” the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said in a statement.
The convicted man, identified by German authorities as Vadim N. Krasikov, 55, maintained before and during the trial that he had no links to the Russian state, but German officials said that he was an employee of Russia’s domestic spy service, known by its initials, FSB.
The victim was a 40-year-old refugee named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, known by the alias Tornike K. in German court documents, who was a Chechen former separatist commander who fought against Russian forces in the early 2000s and was labeled a terrorist by Russian state media.
In reading the sentence, the judges of the Berlin High Court convicted Krasikov of murder, along with illegally owning a gun. The judges found the Russian to be “heavily guilty,” an unusual ruling that makes a shortened sentence or parole less likely.
Krasikov “had been part of the state security apparatus and had received an order from a state agency within the government of the Russian Federation to liquidate,” said Lisa Jani, a spokeswoman for the court.
The Russian Embassy in Berlin wrote in a statement on Twitter that the accusations of Russian involvement were “absurd” and not substantiated by evidence.
Krasikov, who called himself Vadim A. Sokolov and had a Russian passport in that name, was arrested after two witnesses saw him throwing his bike and a bag into the Spree River after shooting the victim at least twice. Police divers later found a Glock 26 pistol in the river in the park, a little over a mile away from the chancellor’s office.
The verdict came on the same day that Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was sworn in as Germany’s new leader last week, delivered his first speech to parliament. In his address, he warned that Russia would pay a “high price” for any “violation of territorial integrity,” although he did not mention the killing or the verdict.
As Russian troops assemble close to the border of Ukraine, dealing with Moscow is one of the new government’s first major foreign policy tests. The sentence handed down in Berlin is expected to make relations even more difficult.
Still, Scholz’s Social Democrats are expected to take a more tolerant approach in the relationship with the Russian government than Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats did.
“We are ready for constructive dialogue,” Scholz said in his speech to parliament. “Against the background of our history, this must apply to our country in particular in its relations with Russia.”
In making its decision, the court not only convicted Krasikov but also backed an assertion by Germany’s federal prosecutor that the killing was carried out with the Russian government’s involvement.
“There are sufficient, real indications that the killing of Tornike K. was carried out either on orders by the officials in the Russian Federation or those in the autonomous Chechen Republic, as part of the Russian Republic,” the prosecutor said in 2019 when taking over the case from local authorities.
Western intelligence agencies have long assessed that the Russian spy services under President Vladimir Putin employ assassination as a tool for settling scores with those the Kremlin considers to be enemies of the state.
A year before Khangoshvili was murdered, two operatives from Russia’s military intelligence service traveled to Britain, where they smeared a highly potent Soviet-designed nerve agent, called Novichok, on the front door of a home belonging to Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the British in the 1990s.
Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fell severely ill, but survived, as did a police detective who responded to their home and a British man who picked up a perfume dispenser the Russian officers had used to transport the poison. The man’s girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, later died when she sprayed the perfume bottle’s contents on her skin.
Western intelligence agencies later determined that the assassination had been orchestrated by a specialized group of officers within the military intelligence service, known as Unit 29155, but the murder of Khangoshvili was attributed to a different agency, the FSB.
The FSB is mostly responsible for operations inside Russia. According to findings by the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, backed up by several Western intelligence agencies, it was this agency that was responsible for the poisoning of Putin’s most prominent political opponent, Alexei Navalny, in Siberia last year.
But Western security officials have grown increasingly concerned about the FSB’s activities outside Russia.
German authorities initially had difficulty learning anything about the man they had arrested in connection with the murder. Krasikov traveled using a real Russian passport, but with a fake name, and Russian officials refused to provide German investigators with any information that might help them. When asked about the case at a summit in Paris a few months after the murder, Putin described Khangoshvili as “a cruel and bloodthirsty person.”
On Wednesday, as Navalny’s daughter Daria Navalnaya accepted the Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top human rights award, in her father’s name, she reminded the attendees of Russia’s alleged extraterritorial killings, noting the murder in Berlin and the Skripal case in Britain.
“We already know that a real terrorist group has been created inside of Putin’s special services, killing citizens of my country without a hearing or a trial, without justice,” she told assembled members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, urging them to take a harder line against the Russian leader.
“They were close to killing my mother, they nearly killed my father, and no one will guarantee that tomorrow European politicians won’t start falling dead by simply touching a doorknob.”