BERLIN (Reuters) - A Russian man charged with murdering a former Chechen rebel in Berlin on behalf of Moscow went on trial amid tight security on Wednesday, heaping further pressure on bilateral ties already strained by the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The shooting in August 2019 of Tornike K., a Georgian who had fought against Russia in Chechnya, led to the expulsion of Russian embassy employees in December.
Prosecutors say 55-year-old Vadim K. approached the victim from behind on a bicycle in the Tiergarten park in central Berlin in broad daylight and shot him with a pistol equipped with a silencer. The suspect then shot the victim twice in the head while he lay on the ground, they say.
The suspect was arrested nearby soon after the attack and has been in custody since. Charged with murder and the illegal possession of a weapon, he faces life in prison if convicted.
“Our findings show this was a contract murder by Russian state authorities,” prosecutor Ronald Georg told reporters, adding that the Russian government viewed the victim as an enemy of the state because he had fought Russia in the Chechen war.
Russia has denied any involvement in the killing.
A court spokeswoman said the defendant, who sat behind bullet proof glass, said nothing during the proceedings. His identity will be a big part of the trial as the defendant argues he has a different name and is 50 years old, she said.
The trial begins as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government decides, along with its European Union partners, what action to take after the global chemicals watchdog confirmed that Navalny, an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a nerve agent from the banned Novichok family.
Navalny was air-lifted to Berlin for medical treatment after collapsing on a flight in Siberia on Aug. 20.
Germany and other Western governments have called on Russia to help with the investigation. Moscow denies any involvement in the poisoning.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Barbara Lewis and Gareth Jones
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