A Frankfurt court has jailed a far-right sympathiser for life for murdering a prominent pro-migrant politician in his garden in 2019.
Walter Lübcke, a regional Christian Democrat (CDU) governor, was shot in the head at close range. He was 65.
Stephan Ernst, 47, admitted firing the shot at Lübcke’s home. It was the first far-right political assassination in post-war Germany.
A second man identified only as Markus H got an 18-month suspended jail term.
Both defendants have a far-right background and prosecutors said the motive for the murder was their political extremism. Ernst was found to be motivated by “racism and xenophobia”.
Walter Lübcke, killed near the central city of Kassel, was the first elected politician to be murdered in Germany for decades. He had backed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome for nearly a million migrants and refugees in 2015.
Stephan Ernst’s lawyer argued that it was a political attack and should therefore be treated as manslaughter. But the judges gave Ernst life because of the gravity of the crime.
It was reportedly Germany’s first political assassination since the leftist Red Army Faction terror attacks of the 1970s.
The murder shocked Germany, which has grappled with a rising tide of support for far-right politics in recent years, especially in the ex-communist east.
Prosecutors also accused Ernst of the attempted murder of an Iraqi refugee in a knife attack in January 2016. The victim was badly wounded.
Markus H denied involvement in Lübcke’s murder but he was convicted for firearms offences. He was cleared of a complicity charge.
What happened to Walter Lübcke?
Lübcke was head of the regional council in Kassel. He was a member of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party and became known nationally when he openly backed her call to take in refugees in 2015.
At a rowdy town hall meeting in October 2015 he told audience members they had to stand up for Christian values.
He received death threats and was given personal protection soon after.
Ernst and Markus H allegedly attended the meeting.
On 2 June 2019, Lübcke’s body was found on the terrace of his home in the village of Istha.
What has Ernst said?
Stephan Ernst has given at least three accounts of what happened on the day of the shooting.
Shortly after his arrest, Ernst confessed that he had shot Lübcke. His DNA was found on Lübcke’s shirt.
A few months later, after changing his lawyer, he withdrew his confession and instead accused Markus H of accidentally firing the deadly shot during a struggle with the politician.
In court, Ernst gave yet another version of events, saying he pulled the trigger, but Markus H was at the scene.
Prosecutors considered Ernst’s first confession to be the most credible, deeming the rest to be trial tactics.
In his last words in court, Ernst turned to Lübcke’s widow and sons and said: “I am very sorry for what I did to you.”
Ernst’s sentence means he is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, but the presiding judge said his confession in court could be a mitigating factor later on, the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported.
He will serve 15 years, followed by preventive detention – but the latter could be reconsidered later, depending on his behaviour, for example if he undergoes a de-radicalisation programme.
Why is the case significant?
During the trial, prosecutors argued Lübcke’s murder was the first far-right assassination since Walter Rathenau, the country’s Jewish foreign minister, was murdered in 1922.
Last month, far-right gunman Stephan Balliet was jailed by a German court for a deadly attack in the eastern city of Halle. Balliet shot and killed a female passer-by and a man at a kebab shop after failing to break into the synagogue in October 2019.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is the biggest opposition group in the German parliament and reports suggest the domestic intelligence agency is planning to place it under surveillance over possible links to extremism.