Syrian denies Germany knife killing that sparked racist clashes

Syrian defendant Alaa S (right), who is suspected of being responsible for the stabbing of Daniel H in Chemnitz, speaks with an interpreter prior to the start of his trial at in Dresden, eastern Germany, Monday. — AFP

DRESDEN, Germany — Defense lawyers for a Syrian man on trial in Germany insisted Monday he is innocent of a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz last year.

Counsel for asylum seeker Alaa Sheikhi, 23, also asked whether any of the judges and lay judges hearing the case have sympathies with the far-right Pegida movement or AfD party which reject immigrants and Islam.

«The attitude of the judges in the refugee question is decisive for a fair trial,» said defense lawyer Ricarda Lang, arguing that her client, who came to Germany during the 2015 migrant influx, was seen by AfD followers as the «declared enemy».

The manslaughter trial is being held not in Chemnitz but in another city of the ex-communist Saxony state, its capital Dresden, for security reasons and because of what the court called the «extraordinarily high public interest».

Prosecutors charge that the Syrian, together with an Iraqi man still at large but subject to an Interpol warrant, stabbed to death 35-year-old German Daniel Hillig in a late-night street fight last August. News of the killing spread within hours on social media and led enraged far-right football hooligans, extremist martial arts fans and neo-Nazis to march through Chemnitz.

Mobs randomly attacked people of foreign appearance and, in follow-up mass rallies, fascist activists openly performed the illegal Hitler salute.Police braced for more potential trouble Monday as hundreds of extremists were gathering for the Chemnitz funeral of a local neo-Nazi.

The proceedings started a week after an Iraqi man went on trial in the western city of Wiesbaden for the murder and rape of a teenage girl, in another case that inflamed anti-immigrant tensions last year.

Late-night fight

A year ago, as the AfD, Pegida and Pro Chemnitz movements repeatedly marched in Chemnitz, a political fight also raged in Berlin about whether the violence amounted to organised «hunts» of ethnic minorities.

Relying in large part on witness testimony, prosecutors say the argument started near a kebab stand around 3 a.m. on Aug. 27 after a town festival.

The fugitive Iraqi, 22-year-old Farhad A., was first to confront Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, said prosecutors.

Both Arab men then allegedly stabbed Hillig, who died of heart and lung wounds, and another man who was badly injured.

Sheikhi was detained soon after together with another Iraqi man, Yousif I.A., who was however later released for lack of evidence. If found guilty, Sheikhi faces up to 15 years in jail. — AFP