Halle synagogue attack: gunman sentenced to life in prison

A gunman who killed two people in a rampage after a failed attack on a synagogue in the east German city of Halle last year has been sentenced to life in prison for what the prosecutor called “one of the most repulsive antisemitic acts since world war II”.

Announcing the verdict on Monday morning, Judge Ursula Mertens noted that the far-right extremist Stephan Balliet had repeatedly tried to relativise the motives for his “cowardly attack” during the five-month trial.

The 28-year-old was handed a life sentence as well as preventive detention and an acknowledgment of the gravity of the crime, in effect ruling out an early release after 15 years in prison.

The defence had declined to make a plea for less than the maximum penalty, merely requesting a “fair sentence”.

On 9 October 2019, Balliet shot a 40-year-old woman in the back after failing to penetrate the door of the city’s main synagogue, where 52 worshippers were marking Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

In a nearby kebab shop, Balliet then cornered and shot dead a 20-year-old male German citizen.

Balliet went on trial on 21 July this year at the higher regional court of Naumburg, charged with the attempted murder of 68 people, Holocaust denial and incitement of the people. For security reasons, the trial was held at the regional court building in the city of Magdeburg.

During the trial the accused made little effort to defend his actions but smiled while repeating his denial of the Holocaust, spouted racist and misogynist conspiracy theories and railed against migrants, insisting at one point that “attacking the synagogue was not a mistake, they are my enemies”.

Balliet, who was not a member of an organised neo-Nazi terrorist cell but had been radicalised in online forums, said he had felt “superseded” by the hundreds of thousands of refugees who entered Germany in the summer and autumn of 2015.

During testimony that led to the judge threatening to exclude him from the courtroom for abusive and racist language, Balliet claimed that being “on the bottom rung of society” justified the attack.

In one court session, Balliet said he would have also murdered children “so that my own children won’t have to do that in the future”.

Forty-five survivors attended the trial as co-plaintiffs and were present for the verdict, which the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, said marked an important day for the country.

“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.”