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German court fines prominent far-right politician for knowingly using a Nazi slogan in a speech

HALLE, Germany — (AP) — A court ruled on Tuesday that one of the best-known figures in the far-right Alternative for Germany party knowingly used a Nazi slogan in a speech and ordered him to pay a fine.

The verdict in Björn Höcke’s trial comes months before a regional election in the eastern state of Thuringia in which he plans to run for the governor’s job.

The state court in the eastern city of Halle convicted Höcke of using symbols of a former Nazi organization. It imposed a fine totaling 13,000 euros (about $14,000).

The charge can carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Prosecutors had sought a six-month suspended sentence, while defense lawyers argued for acquittal.

The case centered on a speech in Merseburg in May 2021 in which Höcke used the phrase “Everything for Germany!” Prosecutors contended he was aware of its origin as a slogan of the Nazis’ SA stormtroopers, but Höcke has argued that it is an “everyday saying.”

Court spokesperson Adina Kessler-​Jensch said judges were convinced that Höcke was aware the formulation was a banned SA slogan.

Presiding Judge Jan Stengel told Höcke that “you are an articulate, intelligent man who knows what he is saying,” German news agency dpa reported.

The former history teacher testified at the trial that he is "completely innocent" and described himself as a "law-abiding citizen."

The 52-year-old Höcke is an influential figure on the hard right of Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

He has led the AfD's regional branch in Thuringia since 2013, the year the party was founded, and is due to lead its campaign in a state election set for Sept. 1.

He once called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame" and called for Germany to perform a "180-degree turn" in how it remembers its past. A party tribunal in 2018 rejected a bid to have him expelled.

Prosecutor Benedikt Bernzen argued in Tuesday’s closing arguments that Höcke had used Nazi vocabulary “strategically and systematically” in the past, dpa reported.

Höcke accused prosecutors of not looking for exonerating circumstances and argued that freedom of opinion is limited in Germany.

Both sides can appeal the verdict. After the trial concluded, Höcke wrote in an English-language post on social network X: “If this verdict stands, free speech will be dead in Germany. The ability to dissent is in jeopardy.”

It’s questionable whether the conviction in the trial, which opened in mid-April, will have any significant political effect on Höcke’s ambitions. It won’t have any direct legal effect on his candidacy.

AfD is particularly strong in Germany’s formerly communist east, where Thuringia is located. It’s unlikely that any other party will agree to work with Höcke and put him in the governor’s office, but AfD’s strength has made forming governing coalitions in the region very complicated.

The Thuringia branch of AfD is one of three that the domestic intelligence agency has under official surveillance as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.

On Monday, a court ruled in a separate case that the agency was justified in putting the whole party under observation for suspected extremism. AfD has portrayed the designation as a political attempt to discredit the party and said it will seek to appeal.

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Moulson reported from Berlin.

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Find more of AP's Europe coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/europe

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