December 7, 2022

Berlin car-ramming driver mentally ill: prosecutors

The suspect's rampage ended with him crashing through the front of a perfume shop


The suspect’s rampage ended with him crashing through the front of a perfume shop – Copyright AFP Ishara S. KODIKARA

Yannick PASQUET

Prosecutors will seek to have a German-Armenian man accused of ploughing a car through a crowd in central Berlin kept in psychiatric care after he showed signs of mental illness, a spokesman for the prosecution said Thursday.

The 29-year-old has shown “relatively strong” signs of suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, spokesman Sebastian Buechner said, a day after a schoolteacher was killed and 32 other people injured in the incident.

The suspect, who had an unspecified medication at his home, has also released his doctors from their confidentiality pledge, he added.

Further investigations will determine whether mental illness was the cause of the crime, but a political motive is currently being ruled out, Buechner said.

The suspect is accused of driving into passers-by in a busy shopping district in the German capital, mowing down a group of teenagers and killing their teacher before crashing through a shop window.

The rampage happened just across from Breitscheidplatz, where an Islamic State group sympathiser deliberately ploughed a truck into a Christmas market in 2016, killing 12. 

In Wednesday’s case, the silver Renault Clio with a Berlin licence plate first mounted the sidewalk, hitting the secondary school students on a class trip, before returning to the road and then ramming into the front of a perfume shop.

A female teacher with the group from a school in Bad Arolsen, a small town in the central state of Hesse, was killed and a male teacher was seriously injured. 

– Terrorism fears –

Frank Vittchen, a witness at the scene, told AFP he was sitting at a fountain nearby when he “heard a big crash and then also saw a person fly through the air”. 

The car drove “at high speed onto the pavement and didn’t brake”, he said, with its windows shattering from the impact.

Media reports of the suspect fleeing the scene and a confession letter found in the car had stoked fears the incident may have been a terrorist attack.

However, Berlin interior minister Iris Spranger had on Wednesday said there was no “conclusive evidence of a political act” and the attack seemed to have been “committed by someone suffering from psychological problems”.

Germany has seen several car rammings since the deadly 2016 Christmas market assault, with most carried out by people who were found to have psychological issues.

In December 2020, a German man ploughed his car through a pedestrian shopping street in the southwestern city of Trier, killing four adults and a baby.

Earlier the same year, a German man rammed his car through a carnival procession in the central town of Volkmarsen, injuring dozens of bystanders, including children. He was sentenced to life in jail last year.

In January 2019, another German man injured eight people when he drove into crowds on New Year’s Eve in the western cities of Bottrop and Essen. He was later taken into psychiatric care.

In April 2018, a German crashed his van into people seated outside a restaurant in the city of Muenster, killing five before shooting himself dead. Investigators later said he had mental health problems.

During the football World Cup in Germany in 2006, a German man rammed his car into crowds gathered to watch a match at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, injuring some 20 people. The driver was later committed to a psychiatric hospital.