There Was A Hit Job In Berlin, And Russia Was Involved

Murders happen in Berlin. They're not common -- the crime rate in Germany is currently at its lowest level in more than 25 years -- but as with all major cities, the occasional violent killing is all but inevitable.

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Khangoshvili
Russia has denied any connection to Khangoshvili's killing. "This case has nothing to do with the Russian state, with official bodies," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in response to media reports about the case, according to Russian state news agency TASS. "I categorically reject any connection between this murder and official Russia."

What’s far less common is for them to occur at noon, in the city center. And what’s truly unprecedented is when the target is a former Chechen fighter, and the suspect an alleged Russian government hitman.

But that’s exactly what happened on August 23.

A man following him on an electric bicycle approached and shot him at close range twice in the head and once in the shoulder. Khangoshvili died instantly; his suspected killer was apprehended and remains in police custody.

If the alleged assassin was trying to be discreet, it’s fair to say he failed. Two teenagers saw him throwing a handgun, wig and bike into the River Spree, setting off a murder mystery that has gripped the country and raised uncomfortable questions about Germany’s complex relationship with Russia.

The murder has also cast a dark shadow over the tens of thousands of other Chechen migrants living in Europe. Vulnerable to deportation, and rising anti-migrant sentiment, they say they’re closely watching Germany’s response to the incident.

‘We were in shock’

Khangoshvili had long been a wanted man. His participation in the Second Chechen War, where he fought alongside fellow Chechen insurgents against Russian federal forces, earned him deep enmity among sections of Russia’s armed forces.

Berlin Ht Job
Numerous assassination attempts dogged him and his young family over the years as they sought refuge across Europe, finally coming to Germany in 2016 in the hope of finding a safe haven at last.

Khangoshvili applied for asylum three times but was rejected at each, according to Mansur Sadulaev, head of the Chechen-focused human rights advocacy group Vayfond in Sweden. Both Germany’s immigration authority and the prosecutor in the case declined to confirm the number of applications Khangoshvili submitted.

“All his requests were ignored,” he said, despite the previous assassination threats and his respectable family status. Khangoshvili’s wife at the time, Manana Tsatieva, was previously a doctor at a leading private hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

A wanted man

The valley was a place of refuge for thousands of civilians fleeing the Second Chechen War, which raged almost a decade, beginning in 1999. Among them were Chechens who had fought against the Russian troops.

“To join the forces who were fighting for an independent country — it was completely normal,” said Tsatieva, a small woman, elegantly dressed in a flowing skirt and headscarf, who moved to Germany with Khangoshvili and their four children.

The first of these was in 2009, according to Aleksandre Kvakhadze, a research fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, who first met Khangoshvili around this time; it was the start of a long friendship.

But he earned further Russian enmity by organizing a group of volunteers — “about 200” of them, according to Kvakhadze — from his native Pankisi Valley to fight invading Russian forces during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.

Khangoshvili’s contacts with former comrades came in handy in August 2012, when a group of roughly 20 Chechen and Dagestani militants were cornered by Georgian security forces on the border with Russia.

One day in 2015, Khangoshvili was walking to his car in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo neighborhood. Suddenly, gunfire erupted behind him, striking him four times in the arm and upper body. He slumped against the vehicle and managed to call an ambulance.

Khangoshvili
In the late 2000s, Khangoshvili settled in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. It was then that the assassination attempts began.

‘He had to leave Georgia to stay alive’

There were suspicious inconsistencies in the investigation that followed, according to Kvakhadze. The new Georgian authorities, who in 2013 replaced the Saakashvili team Khangoshvili had worked with, claimed there was no camera footage of the area of the attack — despite its location in a central neighborhood of Tbilisi.

Khangoshvili took refuge in Odessa, Ukraine, in 2015. Again, they were warned by informants that he would be killed if he returned home, said Tsatieva.

Hopes dashed

Khangoshvili’s life in Germany initially seemed safer, but it was no less difficult: his asylum applications were rejected three times.

Since the killing, no German authorities have contacted Khangoshvili’s family to “convey condolences or apologize for the lack of protection,” said Tsatieva.

So far, the German government’s reaction to the killing has been muted. When questioned about it by journalists during a press briefing in late September, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Germany had “a great interest in a comprehensive investigation of this crime.”

Vladimir Putin
Khangoshvili was sure who was behind the attack. “He had no doubt it was Russian intelligence,” said Kvakhadze. “He suspected that Georgian security services allowed them into the country to conduct the operation.”

Chechen migrants in Germany and elsewhere in the European Union face myriad problems. They often have extreme difficulty securing status documents, with most only possessing a “Duldung,” a “temporary suspension of deportation” certificate that means they are obliged to leave the country at some point in the indeterminate future.

This means they have no legal right to work, and their only housing options are usually overcrowded migrant centers. Lacking other opportunities, some turn to criminal activity and gangs.

Scant comfort for family

His brother, Zurab, lives in Sweden with his two children. Shortly after the murder, he traveled to Germany and approached authorities there, looking for answers. In their latest update earlier this month, German officials told Zurab that the investigation was ongoing and that the case would go to court in the next few months.

The family sees it very differently. “We gave them so many documents, so much proof, that their lives will not be safe [there],” said rights group spokesman Sadulaev, who is personally involved in the case. “They ignored it. Even Khangoshvili’s death was not a good enough reason for his brother to receive asylum.”

Zurab last spoke with his brother on the phone the day before he was murdered. “We were talking about sending my children to Germany where they could file for asylum and what he could do as an uncle to help his nephews.”

Hours later, his brother was dead. Two months on, the suspect “continues to exercise his right to remain silent,” according to Martin Steltner, spokesman for the Berlin Prosecutor’s office.

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