c.2013 New York Times News Service
MUNICH — The trial of the surviving member of a neo-Nazi trio accused of a string of anti-immigrant killings opened Monday in a Munich court amid a renewed debate about racism in Germany’s security services and society.
Beate Zschäpe, 38, is charged with killing eight men of Turkish descent, a man of Greek descent and a policewoman as well as carrying out two bombings and belonging to a terrorist group. She will be tried with four men who are charged with supporting the trio that called itself the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, a play on the name for Hitler’s National Socialist Party, better known as the Nazis.
The case has shaken the country’s security services and confronted Germans with uncomfortable questions about prejudice against the immigrants who make up an increasingly large part of society.
The trial, which is expected to go on for more than a year, will be closely watched by the 3 million Turks and other immigrants who call Germany home. Many of the country’s partners abroad are also following it as a test of Germans’ ability to come to terms with their modern, multicultural identity.
Mehmet Daimagüler, a lawyer representing several of the victims’ survivors, who are allowed to take part in the trial as co-plaintiffs, compared the importance of the trial to the Allies’ prosecution of Nazis in 1945 and 1946.
“This is no different than Nuremberg,” Daimagüler said.
The group is charged with killing eight men of Turkish background and one Greek between 2000 and 2006. The killings were initially known as the “döner murders,” a reference to the Turkish kebabs sold in stands across the country, a tag the survivors found hurtful and demeaning. The group is also charged with killing a female police officer in 2007.
For years, however, investigators focused on members of organized crime as the main suspects in the killings. Only after two of the group members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, killed themselves as police officers closed in on them after a bank robbery in 2011 did evidence, including video that spliced together bloody photographs of the victims taken at the crime scenes, emerge that led authorities to focus on far-right hate as a reason for the crimes.
Moments after the opening formalities, the presiding judge, Manfred Götzl called a recess after Zschäpe’s lawyers challenged his neutrality on the grounds he required her lawyers to go through security controls, arguing it was an “open discrimination” against the defense.
A small woman with long dark hair that she frequently tossed back from her face, Zschäpe stood with her arms crossed and her back to the courtroom for 20 minutes, nibbling mints offered by her lawyers. The four others facing charges of supporting the trio partially covered their faces as they entered the packed courtroom.
Four hours before the trial opened, people trying to secure the 50 seats in the observation gallery began lining up outside of the court. Among them were several lawmakers from Turkey.
Osman Can, a leader of Turkey’s governing party who was among the observers, called the trial a “question of humanity.”
“The violent methods that are seen in this case are not only aimed at Turks,” Can said. “They are against Jews or Roma, or any viewed as ‘others’ in German society.”
Zchäpe has not spoken to authorities since the day she walked into a police station in November 2011, telling officers, “I’m the one you are looking for.” She denies the charges, but faces a sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The case has attracted widespread attention abroad, especially in Turkey. Its opening was delayed by nearly three weeks after a Turkish newspaper filed a petition with Germany’s highest court to be allowed into the courtroom, after it failed to secure one of the 50 seats reserved for reporters. The high court ordered the Munich judges to grant access to media outlets from Turkey and Greece, leading to a whole new accreditation process.
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That delay was only the latest in a case that has been plagued by mistakes by authorities that have damaged the reputation of Germany’s security apparatus. The head of the domestic intelligence agency resigned in July because an official in his office had shredded documents that may have contained evidence from paid informants about members of the group.
State domestic intelligence chiefs in Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt also stepped down as a result of the case, and critics and relatives of the victims charge that the government indirectly supported the neo-Nazi group through payments to confidential informants associated with the far right, several of whom had connections to the group over the years.
A parliamentary committee convened in January has been asked to investigate possible wrongdoing by authorities and to suggest changes to prevent such failures in the future. The committee is expected to issue a final report in the summer.
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Lawyers representing the 77 co-plaintiffs, all relatives of the victims, insist they believe justice involves much more than seeking a heavy sentence for Zschäpe. The relatives of the victims say they want answers to questions about how their husbands, fathers or brothers were sought out and targeted.
They also want details about the role played by German security officials.
“The idea that the NSU only consisted of three very dangerous far-right extremists is very difficult to imagine,” Sebastian Scharmer, one of the lawyers, said Sunday.
Prosecutors say the three came together “to realize their racist ideals, influenced by the Nazis for a ‘preservation of the German nation’ through carrying out murders and explosive attacks to bring about change in the government and society.”
The killings were aimed at sowing uncertainty among Germany’s immigrant population and shaking its faith in the powers of the government to a point that they would decide to move away, the prosecutors said.
In addition to the shootings, prosecutors say that the group was behind two bombings in Cologne, one in January 2001 and the other in June 2004, that were intended to kill “as many people as possible only because of their non-German origin.” Twenty-three people were wounded in the bomb attacks, but no one was killed.
Zschäpe is not accused of direct involvement in the murders but prosecutors clearly state in the indictment that all decisions taken were made jointly, underlining her role as an equal to the two men who killed themselves. Her lawyer has said she will not speak at the trial.