A Cold-War Style Murder Is Adding to Russian-German Tensions

(Bloomberg) — A trial over an execution-style murder in a Berlin city park is likely to further test already strained relations between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the Kremlin.

a group of people playing instruments and performing on a stage: Picture taken on August 23, 2019 shows forensic experts of the police securing evidences at the site of a crime scene in Berlin's Moabit district, where a man of Georgian origin was shot dead.

Picture taken on August 23, 2019 shows forensic experts of the police securing evidences at the site of a crime scene in Berlin’s Moabit district, where a man of Georgian origin was shot dead.

A panel of five judges began proceedings Wednesday against Vadim K. over allegations that he gunned down a Georgian of Chechen descent at the behest of Russian authorities. The victim, identified as Tornike K., was a militia leader from 2000 to 2004 in the second Chechen war against Russia, according to German prosecutors.

Vadim K., 55, shot Tornike K. in broad daylight in the “Kleiner Tiergarten” park in August last year, according to findings in the case. He was apprehended shortly afterward and has been in custody ever since. Federal prosecutors charged him in June.

The trial is the latest in a series of issues that have soured ties between Berlin and Moscow. It comes after fresh evidence in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which may prompt Germany and the European Union to levy sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Read more: Merkel Is Shying Away From Action That Would Really Hurt Putin

Putin last December denied Russia was involved in the Tiergarten murder but pledged to cooperate with German investigators.

“This man was wanted in Russia,” Putin said about the murdered Georgian. “He was a militant, and a very tough and bloody man.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said Russia had no new information about the murder.

Prosecutors say Vadim K. was equipped with a Russian passport using an alias identity of a Vadim S.

The man appearing as the accused at the trial on Wednesday insisted he was Vadim S. and denied being Vadim K.

“I don’t know such a person,” he said. His defense lawyer said his client wouldn’t comment on the charges for the moment.

Alena Epifanova at the German Council on Foreign Relations said Russia would seek to portray the trial as a campaign against it “steered from abroad.”

“The Russian regime will do everything to look good internally,” Epifanova said. “If the Berlin court finds that the Russian government ordered the murder, diplomatic measures will certainly be taken.”

German prosecutors in June said Russian authorities ordered Vadim K. to “liquidate” Tornike K., who had been living in Germany as a refugee since 2016.

Timeline of a Murder

Aug. 17, 2019 – Suspect flies from Moscow to Paris using a visa in the name of Vadim S.

Visa includes employer permit from St. Petersburg-based firm ZAO RUSTZAO RUST has same fax number as two firms owned by Russia’s defense ministry

Aug. 20 – Flies from Paris to Warsaw, books into a hotel until Aug. 26
Aug. 22 – Leaves the hotel around 8 a.m. local time and doesn’t return
Aug. 23 – Accused of gunning down Tornike K. at around 11.55 a.m. in Berlin
Source: German Federal Prosecutor

Vadim K. allegedly approached his victim from behind by bicycle, shooting at him with a silencer-equipped Glock 26 pistol, according to the indictment. When Tornike K. fell, Vadim K. stepped toward him and shot him twice in the head, prosecutors say. Tornike K. died on the spot, just a ten-minute walk from Merkel’s office.

Germany expelled two Russian diplomats in December after the Federal Prosecutor’s initial findings in the case. When Vadim K. was charged, Germany signaled it would hold off on taking further action against Moscow until a verdict is reached.

The case echoes the 1997 “Mykonos” trial, when a Berlin court found that the Iranian government ordered the killing of four Kurds in a Greek restaurant in the German capital. It caused a diplomatic crisis between Germany and Iran as the judges made reference to “terrorist attacks” by the Iranian government.

The trial is scheduled to continue on Thursday with the first two witnesses who will testify on what happened at the park. The court has scheduled 25 hearings through January.

(Adds accused’s statement in eighth paragraph.)

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