Advertisement

Russian goes on trial for alleged Moscow-ordered assassination in Berlin

People, some in masks, sit inside a Berlin courtroom before the trial of Vadim Krasikov.
A German courtroom at the beginning of the trial Wednesday of defendant Vadim Krasikov, an alleged Russian hit man accused of gunning down a former Chechen commander in a Berlin park.
(Odd Andersen / Pool Photo)

An alleged Russian hit man accused of killing a former Chechen commander on Moscow’s orders in broad daylight in Berlin went on trial for murder Wednesday, in a case that has contributed to growing friction between Germany and Russia.

The defendant, Vadim Krasikov, using the name Vadim Solokov, traveled to the German capital last August on the orders of the Russian government to kill a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity who fought Russian troops in Chechnya, prosecutor Ronald Georg said.

“State agencies of the central government of the Russian Federation gave the defendant the contract to liquidate the Georgian citizen with Chechen roots,” Georg told the court, reading the indictment.

“The defendant took the contract, either for an unknown sum of money or because he shared the motive of those who gave the contract to liquidate the [victim] as a political enemy in revenge for his role in the second Chechen war and participation in other armed conflict against the Russian Federation.”

Advertisement

No pleas are entered in the German trial system, and the defendant made only a short statement as the trial began under tight security and coronavirus precautions. He said he had been misidentified and was a 50-year-old born in Russia, not a 55-year-old born in Kazakhstan as said in the indictment.

“I am Vadim Adreyevich Sokolov, not Vadim Nikolayevich Krasikov,” he said through his attorney, Robert Unger. “Such a person is not known to me.”

A Georgian man was fatally shot in August on the streets of Berlin. Evidence suggests Russia or the Chechen republic may have ordered the killing, German prosecutors say.

Presiding Judge Olaf Arnoldi took the unusual step of advising Krasikov of his right to remain silent before asking him basic personal details, saying that in this case even those statements could be self-incriminating.

Advertisement

After the Aug. 23, 2019, killing, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats in December, prompting Russia to oust two German diplomats in retaliation.

If the allegations against the suspect are proved in court, the case has the potential to exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Berlin, which have also been fueled by allegations of Russian involvement in the 2015 hacking of the German Parliament and the theft of documents from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own office. The poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been undergoing treatment at a German hospital, has also soured relations between the two countries.

Moscow has dismissed accusations of involvement in the Navalny case, and denied ties in the parliamentary hacking, though Merkel said there was “hard evidence” of the latter.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo seals a defense cooperation deal with Polish officials that will redeploy U.S. troops from Germany to Poland.

Advertisement

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has also called the allegations of Russian involvement in the killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili in Berlin last year “absolutely groundless.”

After Merkel confronted Putin about the slaying at a meeting in Paris in December, the Russian leader called Khangoshvili a “bandit” and a “murderer,” accusing him of killing scores of people during fighting in the Caucasus.

The growing Russo-German acrimony comes at a delicate time as the two countries work toward the completion of a joint pipeline project to bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. Berlin and Moscow have also been trying to salvage a nuclear deal with Iran that has been unraveling since President Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018.

Khangoshvili, 40, was a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity who fought Russian troops in Chechnya. He also volunteered to fight for a Georgian unit against the Russians in South Ossetia in 2008, but peace was negotiated before he took part. He had previously survived multiple assassination attempts and continued to receive threats after fleeing in 2016 to Germany, where he had been granted asylum.

Advertisement

Germany says labs in France and Sweden confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

Prosecutors say his killer approached him from behind on a bicycle in Kleiner Tiergarten park, shooting him twice in the torso with a silencer-fitted handgun.

“The defendant ... then went directly to [the victim] on the ground and fired two shots into his head to ensure he was killed,” Georg told the court.

Witnesses saw the suspect disposing of the bike, weapon and a wig in the Spree River near the scene and alerted police, who quickly identified and arrested him before he could flee on an electric scooter.

Advertisement

He had about 3,700 euros ($3,350) and about 110 Polish zlotys ($30) on him, which Georg said was to pay his expenses in Berlin and aid in his flight after the crime.

In their indictment, prosecutors say that there is ample evidence indicating official Russian involvement in the killing.

German investigators used facial recognition to match the suspect to a photograph Russia had sent partner agencies in 2014 as it sought help finding Vadim Krasikov in connection with a killing in Moscow. That request was canceled July 7, 2015, and a person with the name of Vadim Sokolov first appeared on Sept. 3, 2015, with a Russian passport.

Advertisement

On July 18, 2019, Vadim Sokolov obtained a new passport from an official office in the Russian city of Bryansk, which he used to apply for a French visa at the general consulate in Moscow, prosecutors said.

Russian authorities confirmed that the suspect’s passport, found on him at the time of his arrest, was valid, prosecutors said.

The same Russian intelligence outfit that hacked the Democrats in 2016 has tried to hack into more than 200 organizations’ systems, Microsoft says.

He was granted the visa and flew from Moscow to Paris on Aug. 17, 2019. In his visa application, prosecutors said the suspect claimed to work for a St. Petersburg firm known as Zao Rust.

Advertisement

Investigators found that Zao Rust had only one employee in 2018 and, on April 10, 2019, was listed as being in “reorganization.” The company’s fax number was one used by two firms operated by the Russian Defense Ministry, prosecutors said.

He left Paris on Aug. 20 and flew to Warsaw, where he had a hotel booked until Aug. 25. Upon arrival, he extended his room reservation to Aug. 26 but left at 8 a.m. on Aug. 22 and never returned, prosecutors said.

It wasn’t clear, they said, what he did between his departure from the hotel and the killing in Berlin at 11:55 a.m. Aug. 23.

The trial continues with the first witnesses Thursday and is scheduled to run through Jan. 27.


Advertisement