German neo-Nazi Stephan E. has been sentenced to life in prison for the 2019 murder of Walter Lübcke, regional governor in Hesse. The trial has raised questions about the German authorities’ ability to track extremists.
Stephan E in Frankfurt courtroom
Stephan E was found guilty of murdering German politician Walter Lübcke
The 47-year-old neo-Nazi Stephan E. was found guilty of the murder of regional governor Walter Lübcke on Thursday, bringing to an end Germany’s first trial for a political assassination since the 1970s. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Judge Thomas Sagebiel also acknowledged the “special gravity” of Stephan E.’s guilt, which will extend the time the neo-Nazi will have to spend in prison before he can be considered for parole.
For a life sentence in Germany, the minimum is 15 years, but in such circumstances Stephan E. is unlikely to be considered for parole for at least 22 years.
Expressing sympathy with Lübcke’s family, who were present in court as co-plaintiffs, the judge said he recognized that the trial would have been “difficult and painful” for them. But he said, “That did not change anything about our task, which was also difficult.”
Two kids hold up a banner that reads democratic values never die
Protesting against neo-Nazis, demonstrators carried barried like this one, which reads “Democratic values are indestructible”
The murder of Walter Lübcke brought new attention to the violent potential of Germany’s neo-Nazi scene and the failures of domestic intelligence agencies to keep track of violent extremists – despite running and paying several informants in the scene.
Lübcke had become a hate-figure for the far-right following a speech in 2015 defending the decision to take in refugees from the Syrian war. But, as the governor’s family complained during their plea as co-plaintiffs, he had been left unprotected by the intelligence agencies. He was shot dead on the porch of his home in June 2019.
Thursday’s verdict attracted an alliance of anti-racist and pro-democracy initiatives, who stood outside the court holding banners declaring their support for democratic values, which they say Lübcke died defending. Among them were children from a high school in Lübcke’s home town of Wolfhagen, which was named after the governor last year.
Accomplice charged with illegal gun possession
Stephan E.’s alleged accomplice, Markus H., another known neo-Nazi, was acquitted of accessory to murder, though he was convicted of an illegal gun possession charge.
Stephan E. had testified that Markus H., was present at the murder scene, and had made sarcastic remarks to the victim before E. fired the deadly shot.
But, though both the prosecution and Lübcke’s family considered this version of events true, the defendant’s testimony has been marred by contradictory accounts of the murder he gave earlier in the trial and on his arrest. At one point, he was apparently incited by a previous defense attorney to testify that Markus H. had pulled the trigger in a tussle with Lübcke.
Attempted murder of refugee ends in acquittal
Stephan E. was acquitted of the attempted murder of Iraqi refugee Ahmed I. in an incident in January 2016, when Ahmed I. was stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant outside the refugee shelter where he lived.
Demonstrators outside the Lübcke trial
This banner translates to “Time to end right-wing networks in our security agencies”
The neo-Nazi, who lived in the area and had a history of violent attacks on people of Arabic and Turkish background, had been questioned at the time, but was not arrested.
New evidence uncovered during the Lübcke murder investigation had led prosecutors to file charges over the 2016 stabbing. Most importantly, a knife was found in Stephan E.’s basement that had traces of DNA on it typical for the region that Ahmed I. was from.
The co-plaintiff’s lawyer Alexander Hoffmann has said that had Stephan E.’s home been searched in 2016, he would have been convicted and never had the opportunity to kill Lübcke.
Fears over far-right violence against politicians
Lübcke’s murder also threw a spotlight on the increasing danger faced by local politicians in Germany. Many have drawn parallels with the knife attack by a far-right extremist that Cologne’s mayor Henriette Reker only narrowly survived in 2015.
“Again and again, mayors have turned to me who fear for their families,” Edgar Franke, the German government’s commissioner for crime victims, said in a statement after Thursday’s verdict.
“The heart of democracy beats in the towns and municipalities. For that reason we must protect local politicians much better than we do up to now.”