German far-right lawmaker stands trial charged with using Nazi slogan

HALLE, Germany (Reuters) -A leading member of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party appeared in court on Thursday charged with using a banned Nazi paramilitary slogan, in a trial just months before a state election he aims to win.

Bjoern Hoecke, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Thuringia, is part of the nationalist wing of the AfD, officially designated by the domestic intelligence agency as "right-wing extremist".

The trial takes place at a time when the AfD, second in national polls behind the opposition conservatives, is under scrutiny over reports that some senior party figures had discussed the deportation of people with non-ethnic German backgrounds.

Several hundred protesters gathered in the eastern city of Halle holding placards with the words: "Bjoern Hoecke is a Nazi" before the defendant entered a packed court room carrying files and dressed in a dark suit.

After Hoecke's lawyers tried to delay the start of proceedings by bringing several technical motions which were rejected, the charge sheet was read out.

Prosecutors say Hoecke ended a campaign speech in the eastern town of Merseburg in May 2021 with the words "Everything for Germany!". This phrase is banned as it was used by Nazi SA stormtroopers.

In Germany, the use of slogans and symbols linked to anti-constitutional groups, including the Nazi party, is illegal.

His lawyers argue he did not know the words were banned and Hoecke himself, a history teacher, said last week in a television debate he was unaware of the origin of the phrase.

He has also been charged with using the term again at a party event in December but the court said that would not be dealt with on Thursday as Hoecke had changed his legal team and they had not had a chance to examine the documents.

If convicted, Hoecke could face a fine or prison sentence of up to three years and may also be barred from public office.

Hoecke is an influential figure in the AfD which has shifted to the right since it was founded as an anti-euro party in 2013. He has hit the headlines repeatedly over his views, and a court has said he can be described as a fascist. He is also facing a separate trial over suspected incitement to hatred.

In 2018, he called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame" and has said Germans need to reverse the way they look at their past and adopt a more positive approach. He was banned from entering the Buchenwald concentration camp in 2017 due to his revisionist views.

Topping opinion polls in the state of Thuringia, the AfD may win most votes in a regional election there on Sept. 1. But so far no other party has been prepared to cooperate with it, so it is unclear how it could form a coalition government.

Outside the court building, Florian Gutsche was protesting.

"(Hoecke) wants to show Nazi slogans can be spoken and Nazi ideology can be practised with the AfD which is dominated by fascist forces," said the head of the VVN-BDA anti-fascist group.

(Reporting by Tilman Blasshofer and Timm Reichert and Fabrizio Bensch; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Hugh Lawson and Angus MacSwan)