Neo-Nazi spent years planning murder of pro-refugee politician, court hears

Execution-style killing of Walter Luebcke in 2019 shocked Germany

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 02, 2019 Stephan E., supected of killing the administrative chief of the western city of Kassel Walter Luebcke, is escorted by police back to a helicopter after a hearing at the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, southern Germany.  A German neo-Nazi stands trial on June 15, 2020 on charges of murdering pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke, the first political assassination since World War II that underscores a rising threat from extremism. - Germany OUT
 / AFP / dpa / Uli Deck

A German neo-Nazi spent years planning the murder of a pro-refugee politician, a court heard, in a killing that shocked the country and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism.

Federal prosecutors said Stephan Ernst, 46, was motivated by "racism and xenophobia" when he shot Walter Luebcke in the head on June 1, 2019.

Mr Ernst appeared at the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt alongside co-defendant Markus Hartmann, accused of helping him to train with firearms including the murder weapon.

The killing is believed to be Germany's first far-right political assassination since the Second World War.

Some people queued all night to get into the court but seating was limited because of coronavirus social distancing measures.

Both defendants wore face masks as they were led into the courtroom, where they took their seats between Plexiglas screens installed as a precaution against the virus.

Luebcke's widow and two adult sons also attended the opening hearing.

Police officers are seen guarding the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt am Main on June 16, 2020 for the start of the trial of the accused of killing politician Walter Luebcke, who belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party and headed the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse. A German neo-Nazi stands trial Tuesday on charges of murdering pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke, in a case that shocked the country and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism. Federal prosecutors believe the main suspect, 46-year-old Stephan E, was motivated by "racism and xenophobia" when he allegedly drove to Luebcke's house on June 1, 2019 and shot him in the head. / AFP / THOMAS KIENZLE

"The family wants to send a clear signal against hatred and violence," said their spokesman, Dirk Metz.

Luebcke, 65, belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party and led the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse.

He supported Ms Merkel's 2015 decision to open the country's borders to refugees and spoke in favour of hosting asylum seekers in a local town.

Prosecutors believe Mr Ernst and Mr Hartmann attended a speech by Luebcke in October 2015 when the politician defended helping refugees and said anyone who did not agree with those values was "free to leave the country".

The remark was widely shared online and turned Luebcke into a hate figure for the far right.

After the speech, Mr Ernst "increasingly projected his hatred of foreigners" on to Luebcke, prosecutors said in the indictment.

They said that after sexual assaults by migrants against women in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015 and a 2016 extremist attack in the French city of Nice, he began tracking Luebcke's movements.

Prosecutors say that between 2016 and 2018, Mr Ernst worked with Mr Hartmann to improve his skill with firearms, and the two attended right-wing demonstrations.

Prosecutors also charged Mr Ernst with attempted murder for allegedly stabbing an Iraqi asylum seeker in the back in 2016.

They said they uncovered weapons and ammunition belonging to him, including revolvers, pistols and a sub-machinegun.

Although Mr Ernst initially admitted killing Luebcke, he later retracted his confession and said Mr Hartmann pulled the trigger.

But prosecutors maintain that while Mr Hartmann "accepted and supported" the danger Mr Ernst posed, he was not aware of concrete attack plans.

Mr Ernst has a long criminal history and was known to police as a neo-Nazi sympathiser.

He was convicted of an attempted bomb attack on an asylum home in 1993. German media say that in 2009 he took part in neo-Nazi clashes against a union demonstration.

But Mr Ernst then slipped off the security services' radar, fuelling criticism that the authorities were not taking the far-right threat seriously enough.

Police vehicles are lined up along the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt am Main on June 16, 2020 for the start of the trial of the accused of killing politician Walter Luebcke, who belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party and headed the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse. A German neo-Nazi stands trial Tuesday on charges of murdering pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke, in a case that shocked the country and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism. Federal prosecutors believe the main suspect, 46-year-old Stephan E, was motivated by "racism and xenophobia" when he allegedly drove to Luebcke's house on June 1, 2019 and shot him in the head. / AFP / THOMAS KIENZLE

German police were criticised fire years earlier for overlooking racist crimes after it emerged that a neo-Nazi terror cell, the National Socialist Underground, had killed 10 people, mainly immigrants, between 2000 in 2007.

In October 2019, just months after Luebcke's death, Germany was rocked by a shooting at a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle that left two dead. The suspect later admitted to anti-Semitic and far-right motives.

Last February, another gunman shot dead nine people of migrant origin in the central town of Hanau.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking at an event in Berlin on Tuesday, urged people to actively take a stand against discrimination and intolerance.

"It's not enough not to be racist. We must be anti-racist," Mr Steinmeier said.

He said that this must be "learnt, practised and lived".

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently declared far-right extremism the "biggest security threat facing Germany".

Mr Seehofer promised tougher security measures, including a crackdown on online hate speech.

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