BERLIN – A German court on Monday convicted a right-wing extremist of murder and attempted murder and sentenced him to life in prison for his attack on a synagogue last year on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day. He killed two people after he failed to gain entry to the building.
The Oct. 9, 2019, attack is considered one of the worst anti-Semitic assaults in Germany’s post-war history.
The 28-year-old defendant, Stephan Balliet, posted a screed against Jews before trying to shoot his way into the synagogue in the eastern city of Halle while broadcasting the attack live on a popular gaming site.
He was convicted of two counts of murder, 66 counts of attempted murder, bodily harm and incitement, among other offenses.
Judges at the Naumburg state court, which met in Saxony-Anhalt state's capital of Magdeburg for security and capacity reasons, on Monday found him “seriously culpable." That means he will be effectively barred from early release after 15 years, which is typical for people in Germany given life sentences.
Presiding Judge Ursula Mertens described it as a “cowardly attack” as she announced the verdict, news agency dpa reported. Balliet showed no reaction but took notes.
During his trial, which began in July, Balliet admitted he wanted to enter the synagogue and kill all the 51 people inside. When he was unable to open the building’s heavy doors, the German shot and killed a 40-year-old woman in the street outside and a 20-year-old man at a nearby kebab shop, and wounded several others.
Balliet was able to flee the scene, but was caught about 1½ hours after his assault started as he abandoned a stolen taxi following an accident.
He apologized to the court for killing the woman, saying that “I didn’t want to kill whites.”
Judge Mertens said there had been many unbearable moments during the trial and that Balliet hadn't shown a hint of remorse. She said society needed to be protected from him.
“You are a fanatical, ideologically motivated lone perpetrator,” she told the defendant. “You are anti-Semitic and xenophobic.”
At the end of Monday's nearly three-hour court session, Balliet threw an object — apparently a rolled-up file or folder — toward representatives of victims who had joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, dpa reported. Four guards then grabbed the defendant and carried him out of the courtroom.
German authorities have vowed to step up measures against far-right extremism following the Halle attack, the killing of a regional politician by a suspected neo-Nazi and the fatal shooting of nine people of immigrant background in Hanau — all of which happened within a year.
The synagogue's damaged door, pockmarked with bullet holes, became a symbol of concern about rising anti-Semitism in Germany.
The head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, said the verdict marked “an important day for Germany.”
“The verdict makes clear that murderous hatred of Jews meets with no tolerance,” he said in a statement. “Up to the end, the attacker showed no remorse, but kept to his hate-filled anti-Semitic and racist world view.”