BERLIN (AP) – Federal German prosecutors on Wednesday took over the investigation of a brazen daylight slaying of a Georgian man on the streets of Berlin, saying evidence suggests it was ordered either by the government of Russia or the Chechen Republic.
The Foreign Ministry immediately announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats following the announcement, citing a lack of cooperation with the investigation of the Aug. 23 killing of the 40-year-old man in the capital.
â€œRussian authorities, despite repeated, high-level and insistent demands, did not participate enough in the investigation,â€ the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It did not identify the names or the functions of the two diplomats being expelled.
The case threatens to inflame tensions between Russia and Germany, and prosecutors’ spokesman Markus Schmitt told The Associated Press his office decided to take over the investigation from Berlin state prosecutors after the political nature of the case that has come to light.
“There are enough indications of the fact that the death of Tornike K. was either contracted by government offices of the Russian Federation or the autonomous Chechen Republic as part of the Russian Federation” to suggest a political motive, Schmitt’s office said in a statement, using only a last initial for the victim in line with German privacy laws.
Russia scoffed at the suggestion, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling reporters there are â€œno serious suspicions there, and there canâ€™t be.â€
â€œWhat do Russian authorities have to do with it?â€ he asked, calling the allegations â€œabsolutely groundless suggestions.â€
Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in London, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she planned to talk about the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when she meets with him face-to-face next weeks for talks on the Ukraine peace process in France.
â€œWe have received no active help from Russia in solving this case,â€ she said, sidestepping a question on whether it would harm bilateral relations between the two nations.
Tornike K., who has widely been identified in reports on the killing by his alias Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was a Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity who fought against Russian troops in Chechnya. He had previously survived multiple assassination attempts and continued to receive threats after fleeing to Germany in 2016.
He was listed as a terrorist by Russian authorities and accused of being a member of the â€œCaucasus Emirateâ€ organization, prosecutors said.
According to reports, Khangoshvili was on his way to mosque for Friday prayers in Berlinâ€™s Tiergarten when his killer sped up on an electric bike and shot him three times, then sped away and ditched the bike, weapon and a wig in the Spree river.
He was spotted as he got rid of the evidence by passers-by who alerted police.
They were able to quickly identify and arrest a suspect, identified at the time as 48-year-old Russian national Vadim K., near the scene and he has been in custody since the slaying. Prosecutors said he went by the alias Vadim S., and German and international news outlets have reported his full name as Vadim Sokolov, a man with links to organized crime in Russia.
Prosecutors said they had found multiple indications that Vadim K. carried out the attempt with official help, and no evidence that the hit was â€œcontracted by a non-state actor.â€
Using facial recognition techniques, investigators were able to match the suspect to a photograph as part of request for help Russia sent to partner agencies in 2014 seeking the arrest of Vadim K. for a killing in Moscow. That request was canceled on July 7, 2015, and a person with the identity of Vadim S. first appears on Sept. 3, 2015 with a Russian passport.
Russian authorities confirmed the suspectâ€™s passport, found on him at the time of his arrest, was a valid document, prosecutors said.
Under the identity Vadim S., prosecutors said the suspect flew on Aug. 17, 2019 from Moscow to Paris and had been granted a visa by French authorities.
In his application for the visa, prosecutors said the suspect claimed to work for a St. Petersburg, Russia, firm known as Zao Rust.
In their investigation, they found that Zao Rust had only one employee in 2018 and on April 10, 2019, was listed as being in â€œreorganization.â€ The companyâ€™s fax number was one used by two firms that are operated by the Russian Defense Ministry, prosecutors said.
He left Paris on Aug. 20, three days after his arrival, and flew to Warsaw where he had a hotel booked until Aug. 25. Upon arrival, he extended his room to Aug. 26, but left at 8 a.m. on Aug. 22 and never returned, prosecutors said.
It is not clear, they said, what he did between his departure from the hotel and the killing at 11:55 a.m. on Aug. 23 in Berlin.
The case evokes memories of the attempt to poison Sergei Skripal, a Russian spy turned double agent for Britain, with the nerve agent Novichock in Salisbury in 2018. Britain blamed the attack on Russian intelligence and Moscow denied involvement.
In its wake, Western nations banded together to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats they accused of being spies, including 60 from the U.S.
Russia called Germanyâ€™s expulsion Wednesday of two of its diplomats â€œgroundlessâ€ and â€œunfriendly.â€
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that â€œpoliticized approach to the investigation is inappropriateâ€ and promised to take â€œreciprocal measures.â€
Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this story.