6 May 2013

Germany’s ‘biggest postwar Nazi trial’ opens

The surviving member of an underground neo-Nazi cell has gone on trial in Germany accused of being involved a series of racist murders, in the country’s biggest postwar terror trial.

Beate Zschaepe, 38, is charged with complicity in the shooting of eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman in towns across Germany between 2000 and 2007, as well as two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies. Her two presumed male accomplices both committed suicide in 2011.

The deaths shocked Germany, and were a stark reminder that its murky neo-Nazi underworld is stronger than previously thought.

But the case also highlighted German security services’ failure to investigate crimes by the far-right. Last year, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency resigned after it emerged that files documenting the use of informers in the far right had been destroyed after the discovery of the cell, the National Socialist Underground.

The trial will be the first time that victims’ families are brought face-to-face with the suspect. “With its historical, social and political dimensions, the NSU trial is one of the most significant in post-war German history,” lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement.

With more than 600 witnesses mentioned in a 488-page indictment, and upwards of 280,000 pages of investigation files, it is expected that the trial will last as long as two years.

Ms Zschaepe entered the court in a tailored black suit, white blouse and big earrings. German media pointed out that she had dressed to “no longer look like a terrorist“.

Read more: Inside the mind of Anders Behring Breivik

The case opened amid tight security and barriers which had been erected in anticipation of possible protests by far-right extremist groups. The Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, wrote to Ms Zschaepe last year addressing her as “Dear Sister” and urged her to use the trial to spread far-right ideology. But few expect her to explain herself.

Outside the courthouse, German-Turkish community groups and anti-racism demonstrators held up banners including one that read: “Hitler-child Zschaepe, you will pay for your crimes”.

The gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU) had gone undetected for more than a decade. It was only discovered by chance, in November 2011, when the two men believed to have founded the NSU with Zschaepe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, committed suicide after a botched bank robbery and set their caravan ablaze.

In the charred vehicle, police found the gun used in all 10 murders and a grotesque DVD claiming responsibility for them, in which the bodies of the victims were pictured with a cartoon Pink Panther totting up the number of dead.

After the suicides, Zschaepe is believed to have set fire to a flat she shared with the men in Zwickau, in east Germany. Four days later, she turned herself in to police in her hometown of Jena, saying: “I’m the one you’re looking for.”

However, it previously emerged that the trio had previously been able to evade justice.

‘New identities’

Although as teenagers in Jena, they were known to the authorities to be involved in racist hate crimes and bomb making, they escaped arrest and assumed new identities.

Prosecutors say they chose shopkeepers and small business owners as easy targets to try to hound immigrants out of Germany, but some of the victims’ relatives came under suspicion because police simply did not consider a far-right motive.

The German parliament is now conducting an inquiry into how the security services failed for so long to link the murders or share information, despite having informers close to the group.

However, the trial immediately got off to a stilted start, as defence lawyers challenged the presiding judge’s impartiality for ordering them, but not some other participants, to be searched thoroughly before entering the court.

“This implies the defence lawyers are so stupid they might bring forbidden objects into the court,” said attorney Wolfgang Stahl, adding that Judge Manfred Goetzl seemed to suspect the defence team might pass messages or objects to their clients.

Politicians have accused the intelligence agencies of being “blind in the right eye” and of focusing so much on Islamist groups that they overlooked the threat from the far right.