KRAKOW, Poland -- A Polish man accused of involvement in the firebombing of a Hungarian cultural center in western Ukraine last year says he received instructions on the attack from a German journalist who has worked as a consultant for a German parliament deputy with the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Michal Prokopowicz, 28, told a Krakow court on January 14 that German journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter provided instructions for the February 4, 2018, attack on the headquarters of the Hungarian Cultural Association in Uzhhorod, the capital of the Zakarpattya region in western Ukraine.
A representative for Ochsenreiter called the claim "false."
No one was injured in the attack, but the incident -- and another fire attack on the building weeks later -- exacerbated already strained relations between Kyiv and Budapest over a Ukrainian education law that Hungary says restricts the right of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine to be educated in their native language.
Prokopowicz is one of three Polish suspects with links to far-right movements who went on trial in Krakow on January 14 for the attack. Ukrainian authorities investigated the case and passed it along to their counterparts in Poland, where the three men were subsequently detained.
Polish public broadcaster TVP reported on January 5 that the authorities were investigating a German journalist in connection with the attack but did not identify the individual.
Ochsenreiter, 42, has ties to Polish right-wing activists, including Mateusz Piskorski, founder of the pro-Russian Change (Zmiana) party who was arrested in 2016 on suspicion of spying for Russia and China.
Reached by RFE/RL last week via the Russian social-networking site VKontakte, Ochsenreiter called the suggestion by Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of European far-right movements, that he might be the German journalist in question "bullshit." Ochsenreiter did not respond to follow-up questions and subsequently made his account private.
Ochsenreiter, editor of the right-wing German magazine Zuerst! (First!), has been a frequent commentator in Russian state media over the past five years, voicing support for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and denouncing what he calls the Western media's anti-Moscow bias.
He has also worked in recent months as a consultant for Markus Frohnmaier, a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, from the AfD and a strong proponent of lifting EU sanctions imposed on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. Frohnmaier did not immediately respond to a request for comment on January 14.
Frohnmaier spoke for Ochsenreiter in denying the charges.
"My co-worker denies the allegations as fictitious," he told t-online.de on January 14. "I also cannot imagine there is [any truth] to it, but do consider it plausible that the accused has wrongly accused [Ochsenreiter] to improve his own situation."
"Let's wait and see if the public prosecutor's office also charges my employee (Ochsenreiter), then -- and only then -- would I put him on leave [from his job]. [Only] when it is finally clear whether the allegation is true or not."
Ralf Hoecker, a German attorney who responded on Ochsenreiter's behalf to RFE/RL's inquiry sent prior to the start of the trial, said in a January 14 e-mail that his client was unaware of any allegations from Polish authorities.
Asked to comment on Prokopowicz's claim that Ochsenreiter had provided instructions for the attack, Hoecker replied: "We are unaware of such a statement. If it was made, it is false."
There was no immediate indication that Ochsenreiter had been charged with any crime by Polish authorities.
Prokopowicz went on trial alongside two other suspects -- 25-year-old Tomasz Szymkowiak and 22-year-old Adrian Marglewski. All three are charged with promoting fascism, as well as endangering lives or property with fire.
Prokopowicz has also been charged with financing terrorism.
Stoking Ethnic Tensions
Following the February 4 attack and a second firebombing of the Hungarian cultural center with Molotov cocktails three weeks later, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin suggested that Russia was behind both incidents.
The attacks ratcheted up tension between Ukraine and Hungary, which has accused Kyiv of failing to protect ethnic Hungarians.
More than 100,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Zakarpattya, Ukraine's westernmost region, mostly in towns and villages close to the Hungarian border.
Prokopowicz said in court that the goal was to frame Ukrainian ultranationalists for the February 4 attack by painting Nazi-related symbols on the façade of the Hungarian cultural center. He claimed he agreed to an offer by Ochsenreiter to carry out the attack because he disliked nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine.
The attack went off less than smoothly, according to Ukrainian authorities. The assailants twice tried to damage the cultural center using gasoline purchased at a local gas station in Uzhhorod. But after the first attempt proved unsatisfactory, they purchased another 1.5 liters of gas for a second try, authorities say.
Ukrainian authorities say they identified the suspects after their images were captured on security cameras. On the same day as the attack, the two suspects returned to Poland via Slovakia, authorities say.
Szymkowiak and Marglewski are accused of directly carrying out the attack.
Prokopowicz claimed in court that he received money from Ochsenreiter, and that all of the money went into the job. Prokopowicz also claimed that the attackers filmed the incident in order to provide the video to Ochsenreiter.
According to Prokopowicz's testimony read aloud by the judge during the hearing, the defendant sent the video of the attack to Ochsenreiter via the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Ochsenreiter has built strong ties with pro-Russian and nativist political movements across Europe in recent years, including in Poland.
He has friendly relations with Russia-backed separatists in territory they control in eastern Ukraine, traveling there as an observer of elections deemed “illegitimate” by the EU.
“This is not [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s business, not [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s, not anyone else’s,” state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Ochsenreiter as saying about a November 2018 vote held in the region.
“Only the people of the DNR can decide whether the elections were legitimate or not, legal or not,” he was quoted as adding in the Russian-language report, referring to the acronym used by the separatists to describe the territory in the Donetsk region they control.
In December 2018, Ochsenreiter also spoke at an event in Chisinau attended by Moldova’s Russia-friendly president, Igor Dodon.
Together with Frohnmaier, the Bundestag member from the AfD, Ochsenreiter and others in 2016 founded a think tank called the German Center For Eurasian Studies. Ochsenreiter and Piskorski, the Polish nationalist suspected of espionage, served on the organization’s board.
Frohnmaier told the German-language service of Russia’s state-run Sputnik news agency last year that the think tank has nothing to do with the AfD.
Frohnmaier confirmed to Frankfurter Rundschau in October that Ochsenreiter had worked as one of his Bundestag consultants since early September.
Frohnmaier did not respond to e-mails and a Facebook message asking whether Ochsenreiter was still serving as his consultant.
The website of the German Center For Eurasian Studies has been in apparent maintenance mode, featuring no content for at least several days.
The website of Zuerst! -- which lists Ochsenreiter as the person responsible for its web content -- was posting new content on January 14.