A Russian man who allegedly shot dead a former Chechen insurgent in Berlin last month has not said a word to investigators in the more than three weeks since he was arrested, amid suspicions the Russian state could have been involved in the hit.
The man travelled to Germany on a Russian passport issued in the name of Vadim Sokolov, but this is not believed to be his real identity. He allegedly shot Zelimkhan Khangoshvili dead from close range in the Kleiner Tiergarten park while the 40-year-old Georgian citizen was on his way to the mosque. The suspect fled by bicycle but was apprehended by police when passersby reported him throwing a wig and gun into a river.
A spokesperson for the Berlin prosecutor’s office told the Guardian the suspect had not yet spoken during questioning and was “behaving like a professional”. There had been contact between the man and the Russian embassy since his detention, the spokesperson said without elaborating.
The killing fits a pattern of hits on former Chechen insurgents in several cities which have often had signs of Russian state involvement. The use of false documents, if borne out, would also suggest that, at a minimum, the suspect had state assistance.
However, German authorities have not accused the Kremlin in what some critics suspect is an attempt to avoid diplomatic fallout. One German MP said “thoroughness is more important than speed” but added that Russian authorities had not helped the investigation so far.
Patrick Sensburg, an MP from Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said:“I had hoped Russia to be more forthcoming in helping us clear up the background behind this killing. If rogue Russian actors murdered Zelimkhan Khangoshvili it should be in the Kremlin’s interest to clear up the matter. If the Kremlin remains silent, however, then that throws up difficult questions.”
As the investigation progresses, sources inside have been downplaying the possibility of Russian state involvement. One told the Süddeutsche Zeitung the use of a Russian hitman could have been a red herring used by those who wanted to sow discord between Russia and Europe.
Other German outlets have suggested Khangoshvili was a radical Islamist, something several friends and associates denied. “He was a religious man, but nothing out of the ordinary,” said one friend who knew him well but asked to remain anonymous. “He was very angry when the Chechen insurgency became more Islamist and was no longer part of it.”
Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, left the active insurgency in Chechnya in 2004 and returned to Georgia. He had been on the radar of Russian security services for many years.
In 2008, an FSB officer told Russia’s Expert magazine that Khangoshvili was “the head of a terrorist grouping hiding in Georgia”.
In 2015, he survived a murder attempt in Tbilisi, when he was shot eight times. From there, he moved to Ukraine and then Germany, where he sought asylum.
The Guardian has seen documents provided by Khangoshvili and his lawyers for his asylum application, including letters from Georgian lawyers detailing the previous attempt to kill him in Tbilisi and stating there was a genuine risk to his life, but his application was rejected, along with those of his ex-wife and four children.
Sandra Roelofs, Georgia’s former first lady, said she had written a letter of support for Khangoshvili’s asylum appeal. “With the security situation in Georgia worsening and Russian influence growing, it was clear to me that Zelimkhan Khangoshvili would be in great danger if Germany would negatively assess his and his family’s asylum request and send him back home,” said the wife of the former president Mikheil Saakashvili, during whose rule Khangoshvili cooperated with Georgian security services.
“Little did I know that Russia would not hesitate to take him out in broad daylight in Berlin,” she said.
A joint investigation by Der Spiegel, Bellingcat and the Insider found that the passport number used by the suspect could be linked to a unit in Moscow’s interior ministry that in the past has issued documents for the military security service GRU.
If further links emerge between the alleged killer and Moscow, the question will be whether Germany makes a major diplomatic incident out of a state-sponsored hit on its soil, similar to the aftermath of the Sergei Skripal poisoning, when Britain rallied western allies to mount a coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomatic staff suspected of spying.
So far, signs point to a much more low key investigation, with the case still being handled by the local Berlin prosecutors rather than at the federal level.
The Kremlin has denied all involvement. “I categorically reject any link between this incident, this murder and official Russia,” said Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, days after the killing.