Germany's health minister on Wednesday partly blamed “incitement” against the government's pandemic rules on social media for the killing of a young gas station clerk who asked a customer to wear a face mask.
A 49-year-old German was arrested Sunday in the fatal shooting of the clerk Saturday in the western town of Idar-Oberstein. The suspect is being held on suspicion of murder.
“It was a cold-blooded murder,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin, noting that the suspect had initially gone home after being refused service for failing to wear a mask, only to return a half-hour later and fatally shoot the 20-year-old clerk in the head.
Authorities said the man told officers he acted “out of anger” after being refused service by the clerk for not wearing a mask while trying to buy beer at the gas station.
“He further stated during interrogation that he rejected the [country's] measures against the coronavirus,” the Trier police department said in a statement.
A requirement to wear masks in stores is among the measures in place in Germany to stop the spread of the virus.
“I'm deeply shocked,” said Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state. “My thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim.”
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Dreyer called for the killing to be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrator punished.
The suspect, a German citizen named in local media as Mario N., initially fled the scene. After a large-scale manhunt was called he turned himself in to police on Sunday morning.
“The question is, what is the environment, what are the circumstances in which such a crime can occur?” Spahn asked. “This has a lot to do with the incitement, the hatred, that is posted on social media."
The three candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in next Sunday's German election also voiced dismay at the killing.
“I’m shaken by this terrible murder of a young man who merely asked that existing rules be followed,” Annalena Baerbock of the center-left Green party said in a tweet.
She warned of the growing radicalization of Germany’s Querdenken movement, which includes people who oppose masks and vaccines, conspiracy theorists and some far-right extremists.
Authorities didn't immediately say whether the suspect was associated with that movement, which has come under increasing scrutiny from Germany's security services following a series of large antigovernment protests, some of which turned violent.
But a Twitter account linked to the suspect followed several prominent German far-right politicians and publicists, including senior members of the Alternative for Germany party.
Posts from the account, which was last used in October 2019, reflect a dislike for immigrants, climate activists and the government
Prosecutors told Germany's dpa news agency that the suspect wasn't previously known to police and that he wasn't legally entitled to possess the firearm found at his house.
Paul Ziemiak, the general secretary of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union party, called the clerk's slaying “incomprehensible.”
“A young man was virtually executed because he pointed out the mask requirement,” Ziemiak said on Twitter. “An inconceivable level of radicalization!”
The Christian Democrats have come under criticism for a campaign video showing their candidate, Armin Laschet, giving a Querdenken activist the microphone during a campaign event.
The head of the domestic intelligence agency in the eastern state of Thuringia, Stephan Kramer, told Germany's RND media group that the killing was “no surprise to me in view of the steady escalation in recent weeks.”
Kramer said his office had warned of the growing potential for violence from extremists.
“It's regrettable that someone always has to die before the risk is taken seriously,” he was quoted as saying.
Facebook last week removed almost 150 accounts and pages linked to the Querdenken movement under a new policy focused on groups that spread misinformation or incite violence but which didn't fit into the platform’s existing categories of bad actors.
Tributes were paid Wednesday to the gas station clerk, a 20-year-old student identified on condolence cards only by his first name, Alex.