MAGDEBURG, Germany (AP) — A German man went on trial Tuesday for a Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue that is considered one of the worst anti-Semitic assaults in the country’s post-war history.
The trial comes at a time when anti-Semitic crimes have reached their highest level since Germany started tracking such crimes in 2001, amid an overall increase in right-wing extremist criminality.
Stephan Balliet, 28, is alleged to have posted an anti-Semitic screed before carrying out the Oct. 9 attack in the eastern German city of Halle. He broadcast the shooting live on a popular gaming site.
The attacker tried but failed repeatedly to force his way into the synagogue as 52 worshippers were inside. Prosecutors allege he then shot and killed a 40-year-old woman in the street outside and a 20-year-old man at a nearby kebab shop as an “appropriate target” with immigrant roots.
Balliet is charged with 13 crimes including murder and attempted murder, along with bodily harm, incitement and other charges. Forty-three victims and relatives have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, as allowed under German law.
The start of the Magdeburg state court trial was delayed for two hours due to the intense interest from dozens of national and international reporters and others who lined up for hours in front of the court building to get through security.
The suspect, clad in all black, with a blue face mask and shaved head, was taken to the court room by special forces with bullet-proof vests and covered faces. Balliet was handcuffed and his feet were shackled, the German news agency dpa reported.
Igor Matviyets, a member of Halle’s Jewish community, who stood vigil with dozens of others outside the court building, said he worried the assault would be considered a crime against Jews only and not as an attack on the entire society.
“That is something I’m trying to fight against,” Matviyets told The Associated Press. “Because everyone could become a target of far-right crime, of far-right terrorists.”
During his attack, Balliet was armed with eight firearms, several explosive devices, a helmet and a protective vest, according to the indictment. Prosecutors have said the weapons were apparently homemade.
Following the attack, the suspect fled the city, wounding another two people in a small town near Halle where he abandoned his car and stole a taxi. Balliet was arrested about 1½ hours after the attack as he got out of the taxi, which had been in an accident.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Joseph Schuster, called the attack “one of the worst anti-Semitic incidents of the last years in Germany.”
“The suffering of the people in the Halle synagogue on Yom Kippur remains inconceivable,” Schuster said in a statement. “It was a miracle that they could evade this massacre.”
As the suspect tried to break into the synagogue, terrified worshippers inside were able to watch him through a surveillance camera.
Schuster demanded that the court looks into all aspects of the attack, and continues to investigate whether the suspect had any support from others.
He lauded the German government for making the fight against far-right crimes one of its top priorities in recent months and said that while the sense of security among Jews in Germany had taken a hard hit after the attack, it was now “almost back at the level before the attack, though additional security measures have partially led to restrictions in community life,” dpa reported.
German authorities vowed to step up measures against far-right extremism following the killing of a regional politician by a suspected neo-Nazi, the attack on the Halle synagogue and the fatal shooting of nine people of immigrant background in Hanau over the past year.
A lawyer for the co-plaintiffs, Juri Goldstein, said the trial was also about trying to find out how somebody could develop so much hatred “for people that he doesn’t know at all.”
Grieshaber reported from Berlin.