The Marwa Al-Sherbini Case Investigators Believe Killer 'Hated Non-Europeans' and Muslims

Two months after the brutal murder of an Egyptian woman in a courtroom in Dresden, investigators believe the German-Russian immigrant who killed Marwa al-Sharbini was motivated by xenophobia. The case, which has not yet gone to trial, continues to be the focus of intense pressure from abroad.

By in Dresden


The tragic events were set in motion at a swing set in a plain wooden sandbox in Dresden, a major city in eastern Germany. A huge ash-leaf maple tree casts its shadow. East German-era prefab tower blocks are located next door, and tenants hang their laundry out to dry next to the small playground in the city's Johannstadt district. Everything is regulated here -- even playtime, which is permitted from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer months.

It was on this playground that Alexander W.* and Marwa al-Sherbini met for the first time on August 21, 2008. He was a 27-year-old Russian-German from Perm; she a 30-year-old Egyptian from Alexandria. Both had been stranded in eastern Germany by chance. They hadn't encountered each other before -- and there was no reason to think they ever would again. But an ominous confrontation ensued following a dispute over a swing, culminating 10 months later with a crime that rattled the Islamic world, battered Germany's reputation and gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another excuse to hurl invectives.

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In a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent in July, Ahmadinejad wrote, "Is not the murder of Sherbini a sign of wild racism in some sections of Germany's government and judicial system?" In Tehran, Cairo, Alexandria and Karachi, protesters marched with "Down with Germany" posters, and the Alliance of Islamic Communities in Northern Germany deplored what it described as a growing resurgence of "Islam bashing."

A Tragedy that Began on a Playground

The incident that took place at a swing set in Dresden has preoccupied the entire world. Two lives with little in common collided on this playground. On the one side, a young Egyptian woman from a good family who studied pharmaceutics and had played handball on the Egyptian national team. She married an up-and-coming scientist, had a child and vied successfully for a job. On the other was a German-Russian, who had eked out a living as a carpenter and a building maintenance man. Most recently, he had been jobless and was pulling €640 a month from the government in social welfare payments for the long-term unemployed. One had a lasting sense of inferiority; the other was standing firmly with both feet on the ground. He lived in the tower block; she in the city's trendy Louisenstrasse street.

Investigators have now largely pieced together what happened on the playground a year ago.

Alexander W. sat on one of the two swings, while his niece used the other. Enter Marwa al-Sherbini. As always, she wore her headscarf and asked W. to let her son Mustafa use the second swing. Alexander W. reportedly said that he did not want his niece to see Islamists. One word led to another. Cursing loudly, W. called her a terrorist, and said that her son would be one in time. It was loud in the normally tranquil sandbox, so witnesses called the police. Al-Sherbini filed charges for slander.

It was a routine matter for the police and the public prosecutors -- unpleasant, but not uncommon. In October, officials fined Alexander W. more than €330. W. lodged an appeal. He had no lawyer and said he didn't understand what was punishable in this case. W. demanded a "trial by jury." He railed against the headscarf. He said that Islamic fundamentalists were his enemies, and that he felt victimized. In his letters, he referred to al-Sherbini only as "that woman" in quotation marks.

Losing Touch with Reality

The district court set a trial date. In November, the judge at the hearing doubled the fine. Alexander W. was losing touch with reality, and both he and the prosecution appealed. He felt cornered. He requested a public defender and was granted one after many communications back and forth. A date had now been set for his trial in the local district court -- July 1, the day Marwa al-Sherbini would die.

The situation continued to deteriorate for W. In its appeal, the Public Prosecutor's Office wanted to seek to "impose a custodial sentence, possibly even without parole," if Alexander W. continued to act "unreasonably." A playground dispute had suddenly catapulted into a situation where the man was threatened with jail time. Shortly before the hearing, W.'s public defender wanted to withdraw his appeal. He knew there was hardly any chance of securing a lenient sentence for his client, but W. persisted.

On July 1, the parties met again in Room 10 of Dresden's historic district court. Investigators believe W. had already made the decision to kill the Egyptian before the court held the hearing. They believe that a phone call he made to his mother shortly before the hearing -- in which he allegedly told her he loved her and then hung up -- was proof the murder was premeditated. The call alarmed W.'s mother.

In hindsight, the court recalled a mostly reserved defendant who nevertheless stood out with his right-wing slogans. Muslims are monsters to him, he said. Why didn't we deport them from Germany after the Sept. 11 attacks? He babbled on about the race issue, declared that he didn't want Germans to mingle with foreigners, and said that he would be voting for the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) anyway.

The judge then asked for a verbatim record, and the public defender tried to mediate. But W. kept upping the ante. He said he regretted that the NPD was not part of the government in the state of Saxony. The judge asked whether he had ever visited a concentration camp. W. countered by stating that it was the Nazis who were responsible for them, not the NPD.

Then al-Sherbini began her testimony. She was composed and matter-of-fact. She denied that Alexander W. had described her as an "Islamist bitch," as had been stated in the police report, but confirmed he did call her a terrorist and Islamist. The only person who had further questions for the witness, was W., who was sitting less than two meters (six feet) away. Why was she in Germany at all, he wanted to know. The judge rejected the question. Then W. asked why she didn't have a swing set at home. The public defender motioned for a recess.

A Violent Murder

Finally, al-Sherbini stood with her three-year-old son Mustafa and her husband Elwi Okaz at the door to the courtroom. The formalities were completed, and she would later call to find out the outcome of the trial. Suddenly, Alexander W. leapt toward her with an 18-centimeter (seven-inch) kitchen knife in his hand. He had apparently smuggled it into the courtroom in his black backpack. W. immediately attacked Sherbini, who was three months pregnant at the time. Her husband tried to come between them to stop the attack, the public defender threw chairs and even tried to push a table between the witness and his client.

The judge pressed the alarm button at 10:23 a.m. The court staff rushed in, as did a federal police officer who happened to be nearby. In the tumult, he confused the perpetrator and victims. He shot al-Sherbini's husband Okaz in the thigh, and he immediately crumpled to the floor. Then Alexander W. was arrested.

Sherbini died at 11:07 a.m. The coroner found 16 knife wounds in her back, chest and right arm. Her trachea, esophagus, ribcage, lungs, liver, spleen and heart had been perforated. Her shoulder blade was broken from the force of the attack. The defenseless woman had no chance.

Her husband had to have stitches in the lower jaw, neck, chest, shoulder and belly. The shot from the police officer's gun pierced his left thigh and broke the bone. Okaz, a researcher at Dresden's Max Planck Institute, had to be revived and put into an artificial coma. The family's three-year son was injured during the attempt to bring him to safety.

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