A Syrian asylum seeker accused of a killing that sparked a week of far-right street violence in the eastern German city of Chemnitz in 2018 has been found guilty of manslaughter.
Alaa Sheikhi, 24, was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison by the Chemnitz higher regional court on Thursday.
The trial was held in the state capital of Dresden for security reasons and because of what the court called the “extraordinarily high public interest”.
The timing of the ruling is sensitive, coming just a over a week before state elections in Saxony in which the far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland could emerge as the strongest party.
The court verdict also comes almost exactly a year after Sheikhi and an accomplice are believed to have stabbed to death 35-year-old Daniel Hillig, a carpenter with German-Cuban roots, following a confrontation.
The main suspect, a 22-year-old Iraqi man referred to in German media only as Farhad A, remains at large and is believed to have fled the country.
The atmosphere in Chemnitz turned sour soon after news of Hillig’s death became public, culminating in two days of far-right street violence that left several people injured.
Some people were filmed chasing foreigners through streets, while others were seen with Nazi-linked banners and giving the straight-arm salute.
After police shut down a street festival, Chemnitz became the scene for a week of far-right protests, attended by thousands of neo-Nazis from across the country.
The Chemnitz riots also threw into doubt the future of Angela Merkel’s coalition government. At the time, the German chancellor’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, condemned the attacks, saying “such riotous assemblies, the hunting down of people who appear to be from different backgrounds or the attempt to spread hate in the streets, these have no place in our country”.
But the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, directly contradicted the chancellor, telling the Bild newspaper that he shared “the scepticism towards media reports of rightwing extremists chasing down foreigners in Chemnitz”, and that “deliberate misinformation” had been spread.
In the fall-out over the comments Maaßen lost his job and the governing coalition between Merkel’s centre-right CDU and the centre-left SPD clashed to a point where their working alliance appeared to be on the brink of collapse.