Man guilty of stabbing muslim woman to death in court
It started with a seemingly trivial argument about a swing in a children's playground, but soon spiralled into one of the most shocking racist murders Germany has witnessed since its reunification.
Eleven months later, Marwa el-Sherbini, a beautiful and well-educated Egyptian woman expecting her second child, was brutally stabbed to death with a 12-inch knife in front of judges in open court in the east German city of Dresden.
Her husband, tried to protect her and was attacked for his pains. He was left clinging to his 31-year-old Muslim wife in a pool of her blood on the courtroom floor, as their three-year-old son looked on. As he mouthed "She's dying, She's dying", Mrs Sherbini bled to death. Security guards had failed to intervene in time.
The case, which aroused scant interest in Germany at the time, provoked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Mrs Sherbini was dubbed the "veil martyr".
Yesterday her killer, a 28-year-old German of Russian extraction, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Alexander Wiens stood motionless in the Dresden court only a few doors away from the courtroom where he carried out the murder. This time security has been exceptionally high, with 200 police officers standing guard.
His face covered with a hood and his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, the defendant was convicted of murder, attempted murder and causing grievous bodily harm. Judges said that, because of the severity of Wiens's crime, he would not be eligible for parole after 15 years.
An unemployed member of Russia's German-speaking minority, Wiens is one of thousands of Russian Germans who have moved to Germany since reunification. Many, whose forebears migrated to Russia in the 18th century, have failed to integrate into German society and are treated as outsiders.
Elwy Okaz, Mrs Sherbini's Egyptian husband, who is a geneticist, was in court to hear the verdict, still using crutches as a result of the injuries he sustained. He gave the court a tearful account of how badly their son, now aged four, missed his mother.
The court yesterday accepted the prosecution's argument that Wiens was driven by "an unbridled hatred of foreigners". The presiding judge, Birgit Wiegand, said Wiens, who, listed his activities as "drinking, smoking and gambling", had moved to Germany in 2003. She said he had described life in the country as "multicultural shit" and blamed foreigners for taking away German jobs. "He despised Muslims. In his eyes they were all Islamic fanatics," she said. "He wanted to be a perfect German."
The events that led to the tragic and brutal murder of Mrs Sherbini, a pharmacist who was working at Dresden University, began on a sunny Thursday afternoon in August last year when she strolled into a children's playground. She was wearing jeans, a white blouse and the only indication that she was Muslim was a small headscarf. With her was her son, Mustafa.
The toddler wanted a go on one of the two swings in the playground, but they were both occupied. Wiens sat on one, smoking a cigarette. Mrs Sherbini asked him in German whether he would mind getting off because her son wanted a turn.
His immediate response was a torrent of insults. "You are an Islamist and a terrorist who has no business in Germany," he said, adding that she was no better than a "whore" and that her son too would grow up to be a "terrorist".
The mother was shocked and felt horribly insulted. A bystander who had witnessed the incident called the police. Mrs Sherbini was persuaded to file an official complaint against Wiens. Three months later, he was found guilty by a Dresden district court and ordered to pay a €330 (£298) fine.
Wiens refused and wrote a letter to the court which concluded: "I feel humiliated and unfairly treated by the German justice system." He appealed and the case was again referred to Dresden' district court. The following month the fine imposed on him was increased to €780. Wiens again refused to pay and launched another appeal which was heard by the city's regional court on 1 July this year.
Judge Tom Maciejewski, who was in charge of proceedings that day, has been too distraught to work ever since. He choked on his words and had to interrupt his testimony frequently when he was called as a witness at Wiens' subsequent murder trial.
On the day of the killing he had assumed the case was regarding a minor offence that could be dealt with in minutes. Security was correspondingly lax.
"I registered the fact that Wiens had a bag on his lap and I heard the zip-fastener being pulled open," he said. "Then I saw him leap up and attack her with his fists. It was like a machine gun. I ran to him and tried to grab him ... and then I saw that he had this knife in his right hand."
The judge ran out of the court and tried to find help. When he walked back in, Mrs Sherbini's husband, who had by then also been knifed, was saying, "She's dying". At that moment an armed security guard ran into the courtroom and, assuming Mrs Sherbini's husband was the attacker, promptly shot him in the leg. By that time Mrs Sherbini was dead.
The shocking courtroom murder was hardly reported in Germany. The case was treated as a domestic argument that had run out of control and as a failure of court security proceedings. In the Muslim world however, it was treated as an example of German Islamophobia and provoked protests in several Arab countries.
Despite complaints that Chancellor Angela Merkel's government had failed adequately to condemn the murder at the time, Egypt's ambassador to Germany, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, welcomed yesterday's verdict."I think that getting the maximum possible sentence says a lot," he said. "I think it enables the family to feel that justice has been done."
Maria Böhmer, the German government official responsible for immigrant affairs, said the verdict sent a clear signal. "The message is: there is no place for xenophobia in our country," she said.