German far-right 'terrorists' jailed for refugee attacks

Andrea HENTSCHEL and Frank ZELLER in Berlin
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Members of the so-called "Freital group" were escorted into the courtroom in Dresden before being sentenced

Eight members of a German far-right group were jailed Wednesday on terrorism and attempted murder charges for a series of explosives attacks targeting refugees and anti-fascist activists.

Based in Germany's ex-communist east, the so-called "Freital group" had sought to create "a climate of fear" at the height of Germany's refugee and migrant influx in 2015, the court was told.

Its leaders Timo Schulz, a 29-year-old bus driver, and Patrick Festing, 26, a pizza delivery and warehouse worker, were sentenced to 10 and nine-and-a-half years in prison respectively.

The other five men, aged 20 to 40, and a 29-year-old woman received custodial terms of between four and eight years in the trial held under high security in the city of Dresden.

The eight right-wing extremists had modified pyrotechnics bought in the neighbouring Czech Republic for five explosives attacks between July and November 2015.

They twice struck Freital refugee homes, leaving a Syrian man with "multiple cuts" to the face, and also attacked an office and a car of far-left Die Linke politicians and a Dresden left-wing residential complex.

The Freital group is named after the members' hometown, which drew notoriety beyond German borders in 2015 when enraged protesters there railed against "criminal foreigners" and "asylum-seeking pigs".

Nearby Dresden, capital of the eastern state of Saxony, was the birthplace of the anti-Islamic street movement Pegida, which has ties with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) that has since entered Germany's parliament.

Pegida and the AfD have raged against Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy to allow in more than one million asylum seekers, about half from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, since 2015.

- Racist ideology -

The trial was held under tight security in a temporary courtroom complex with on-site holding cells located, ironically, in a former refugee accommodation centre on the outskirts of Dresden.

A dozen police secured the trial attended by more than 100 visitors, most of them family, friends and supporters of the accused, who watched through a glass partition.

The trial heard that Schulz and other group members had attended rallies of Pegida -- short for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident -- and were members of a local "citizen's self-defence" group in Freital.

Some onlookers cried when the jail terms were announced, others laughed sardonically when judge Thomas Fresemann declared that the verdict was just and not aimed at making an example of the accused.

Prosecutors argued that the group had casually accepted the risk of more victims and possible deaths in their attacks.

"Some in the media and in the population have treated these as boyish pranks," said prosecutor Joern Hauschild. "The evidence shows this is not the case," he added, labelling the group a threat to Germany.

On the final day of hearings in February, Festing had apologised to the victims without however clearly distancing himself from far-right and racist ideology, reported regional newspaper Saechsische Zeitung.

"I am sorry," he said. "I can't explain why I did it."

Prosecutors are investigating another 10 suspects -- two alleged members of the Freital group and eight alleged supporters -- MDR public radio reported.