German Court Hands Life Sentence to Halle Synagogue Attacker

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Stephan Balliet (C), who is accused of shooting dead two people after an attempt to storm a synagogue in Halle an der Saale, eastern Germany, arrives for his conviction on December 21, 2020 in Magdeburg, Germany
Stephan Balliet, who is accused of killing two people after an attempt to storm a synagogue in Halle an der Saale, arrives for his conviction on December 21, 2020 in Magdeburg, GermanyCredit: RONNY HARTMANN - AFP

A German court has 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 October 9, 2019, attack is considered one of the worst antisemitic assaults in Germany’s post-war history.

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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.

News agency dpa reported that judges at the court in Magdeburg on Monday found him “seriously culpable,” meaning that he will be effectively barred from early release after 15 years.

This came after federal prosecutors asked the Naumburg state court, meeting in nearby Magdeburg, to convict Balliet of murder, attempted murder, incitement to hatred and attempted violent extortion.

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.

He apologized to the court for killing the woman, saying that “I didn’t want to kill whites.”

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 antisemitism 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 antisemitic and racist world view.”

Verdict welcomed by U.S. Jewish groups

Monday’s sentencing was also welcomed by American Jewish groups. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt  said the court’s decision “will keep the Jewish community safe from this particular white supremacist terrorist and will hopefully send a strong signal of deterrence to those who harbor the same, vile antisemitic beliefs.”

“To prevent more white supremacist terror attacks in Europe and around the globe, attention must be given to the hate that drives this violence and to the spread of this hate through white supremacist networks across the world,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “This terrorist spoke openly of his inspiration by other white supremacist terrorists, who openly share their manifestos and messages.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder also commended the German justice system for imposing the maximum sentence on the attacker, whom he called a “vicious antisemite”. 

"The speed, follow-through and decisiveness of this trial is a definitive example of how the judicial system must respond to such horrific violence, making crystal-clear there is no place for such hateful, harmful rhetoric or behavior in society,” Lauder said. 

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