A German neo-Nazi spent years plotting the murder of a local mayor after attending a speech where he defended refugees, prosecutors have claimed.
Stephan Ernst, a 46-year-old with previous convictions for violence towards immigrants, went on trial Tuesday for the murder of Walter Luebcke, a regional council chief in the city of Kassel, who was shot in the head at close range on the porch of his home in June last year. It is the country's first alleged far-right political assassination since WWII.
Luebcke's execution-style killing, following a string of near-miss far-right assassination attempts on political figures, sent shockwaves through German society, underlining the threat posed by the country's growing and increasingly militant far-right.
Ernst is standing trial alongside co-defendant Markus Hartmann, who is charged with being an accessory to Luebcke's murder and breaking firearms laws.
Federal prosecutor Dieter Killmer said Ernst was driven by "racism and xenophobia" to carry out the murder, and that he and his co-accused both sought "an ethnically and culturally homogenous society".
Prosecutors said that both men had attended a heated town hall meeting in October 2015, where Luebcke, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, had defended her government's decision to open the country's borders to migrants.
Luebcke told the meeting that welcoming refugees was a reflection of Christian values, adding: "Whoever does not support these values can leave this country any time, if he doesn't agree." Footage of those comments was circulated among nationalist networks online, making Luebcke a hate figure for Germany’s far-right, and resulting in death threats that led to him being assigned personal protection.
Prosecutors said that after Luebcke's speech, Ernst "increasingly projected his hatred of foreigners" onto the local politician, a hate that was inflamed by a string of high-profile incidents like a spate of sexual assaults by migrants against women in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015, and the terror attack in Nice in July 2016.
Following these incidents, prosecutors said, Ernst began tracking Luebcke’s movements, and attending right-wing demonstrations with his co-accused, who also helped him with firearms training.
Ernst is also facing an attempted murder charge over the stabbing of an Iraqi asylum seeker in 2016, which left the victim with an injured spine and two severed nerves. Police connected Ernst with the attack after finding the knife used in the attack during his arrest for Luebcke's murder, along with a haul of illegal firearms including three revolvers, two pistols, two rifles, a submachine gun and 1,400 bullets.
Ernst has previous convictions for an attempted bomb attack on an asylum home in 1993.
The trial, which is being held in Frankfurt and is expected to last until October, has attracted a huge amount of interest in Germany, where some members of the public queued overnight to get a seat in court.
Experts say the German government's response to the migration crisis of 2015, allowing more than a million migrants and refugees to enter the country, has unleashed a wave of political violence from the far-right, which has increasingly framed pro-immigration lawmakers as enemies of the people.
Prior to Luebcke's killing, two other local politicians were lucky to survive violent attacks. In October 2015, Henriette Reker, a candidate for the Cologne mayoralty, was stabbed in the neck by a right-wing extremist yelling about refugees, while two years later, the pro-immigration mayor of Altenar, Andreas Hollstein, survived a similar attack.
In another attack in 2015, a pro-refugee local councilman in the town of Freital had his car blown up while he slept.
If the case against Ernst is proven, Luebcke's killing would be the first far-right assassination in modern German history. Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, said that the closest precedent was a far-right shooting of a German student political leader in 1968, causing injuries which resulted in his death 11 years later.
But despite growing efforts by German authorities to respond to right-wing extremism, which Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently described as the "biggest security threat facing Germany", deadly political violence has continued in the wake of Luebcke’s killing. In October last year, an anti-Semitic gunman shot dead two people in the eastern city of Halle as he attempted a Christchurch-style livestreamed assault on a synagogue. And in February, a gunman shot dead nine people from minority backgrounds at a hookah bar in the town of Hanau.