Trial begins in Germany over synagogue attack on Yom Kippur

Stephan Balliet said his only remorse was that both people he killed were white. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - A young German man charged with killing two people last fall after his plan to blast his way into a synagogue filled with Jews observing Yom Kippur failed, told a court on Tuesday (July 21) that he was inspired by the white supremacist who had killed 51 worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand earlier last year.

Stephan Balliet, 28, is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of a 40-year-old woman, who spoke up as Balliet planted explosives around the entrance to the synagogue in the eastern city of Halle, and a 20-year-old man he thought was a Muslim.

He is also charged with 68 counts of attempted murder and other crimes for the attack last Oct 9. If convicted of murder, Balliet faces life in prison.

The attack raised alarm that even Germany, a country that prides itself on its culture of humility and atonement for the crimes of the Nazis, is not immune to the international influence of far-right extremism and white supremacy that has incited rampages from New Zealand to Pittsburgh.

In 2019, crimes against Jews in Germany reached their highest level since the country started tracking them in 2001.

Balliet was flown to the courtroom in Magdeburg hours before the trial opened. He wore a protective vest and jeans, and his hands and feet were in handcuffs and shackles similar to those of defendants who've faced terrorism charges.

The trial had been moved from a smaller court in Naumburg to accommodate all of the participants and the news media.

Dressed all in black, his face largely expressionless, Balliet at first gave only curt responses when presiding judge Ursula Mertens pressed him for details about his past, his family and his personal life, German media reported.

"That's not important," he responded again and again.

What was important to him was the year 2015, when Germany welcomed more than one million refugees.

He said that was when he decided to turn his back on a society he described as "infiltrated" by Muslims and Black people, whom he used a racist slur to describe, eliciting a rebuke from Judge Mertens.

Balliet was flown to the courtroom in Magdeburg hours before the trial opened. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"I will not accept the verbal abuse of people in this courtroom and have the authority to remove you," she told him.

"I will not tolerate further crimes in the courtroom by you slandering people."

The racist slurs and derogatory language Balliet repeatedly sought to use echoed the hateful rants denouncing feminists and immigrants heard on a video he made of his attack using a camera mounted on a helmet.

He broadcast his remarks live to an online chat platform.

In the 35-minute video, which Balliet said was inspired by the New Zealand massacres that were also live-streamed by the perpetrator, he declared, "The root of all these problems is the Jew."

Mr Kai Lohse, a federal prosecutor, confirmed that Balliet blamed Jews for the problems he identified in German society.

"He described Jews as rats that had to be lured out of the synagogue" to be killed, Mr Lohse told the court.

Prosecutors have found no indication the attacker was part of a larger network beyond the virtual world where he drew inspiration.

Balliet largely confessed, in the courtroom and earlier to prosecutors, to the charges against him, including the two counts of murder.

His only remorse, he said, was that both people he killed were white.

The death of the woman, identified only as Jana L., in keeping with German privacy laws, was "not planned or wanted," he said, but when she made a remark that upset him, he had no choice but to shoot her.

"If I hadn't done that, everyone would have laughed at me," he said, explaining that because he was live-streaming the attack, those watching would have realised that "a stupid comment is enough to stop someone from the Right".

His intent, though, had been to empty his weapons inside the synagogue, he said.

When he was thwarted by its heavy oak doors, he headed for a kebab shop and opened fire.

"Someone was standing in the door and I shot him," he told the court, adding that he had thought the man he killed, identified only as Kevin S., was "Middle Eastern".

Dozens of the 52 people who had gathered for services in Halle's Humboldt Street Synagogue last year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, were among those who packed the courtroom on Tuesday.

In a statement released by their lawyer before the trial began, they expressed hope that the proceedings would draw attention to the role the Internet plays in fuelling far-right hatred and the links between anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.

"The perpetrator chose his targets on the basis of a white, racist ideology that fuses anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia with conspiracy theories," they said.

"His radicalisation took place in online communities that strengthened and promoted these beliefs."

In June last year, a conservative politician who supported refugees, Mr Walter Lübcke, was fatally shot just outside his home in western Germany, in the country's first far-right political assassination since the Nazi era.

Security forces then revealed that Mr Lübcke was one of many people on a neo-Nazi hit list.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has since declared far-right extremism the "biggest security threat facing Germany", and promised a beefed-up security response.

However, minority rights activists and opposition leaders accuse the authorities of being too quick to write off individuals like Balliet as lone actors with no connection to the societies in which they live.

"He did not simply radicalise out of nowhere," Mr Cem Ozdimir, a lawmaker for the opposition Greens, told n-tv television on Tuesday, adding that most extremists are men who are marked by misogyny, as well as hatred of Jews and Muslims.

"It is important that the whole of society stands up," he said, "and says we want to chase this hate back into hell, where it came from."

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