Neo-Nazi cell survivor in dock for biggest German terror trial for decades


Link to video: Neo-Nazi Beate Zschaepe goes on trial in Germany

Germany’s largest ever neo-Nazi trial opened in Munich on Monday, as the surviving member of a far-right underground cell and four men accused of acting as her accomplices faced the families of their alleged victims for the first time.

Beate Zschäpe appeared calm and collected as she walked into Munich’s main regional court flanked by armed police. The 38-year-old is accused of complicity in nine racially motivated murders, the killing of a policewoman, two nail bombings that injured 23 people, and 15 armed bank robberies – incidents that took place over the best part of a decade.

Zschäpe is the surviving member of what is believed to have been a trio, who made up the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU). Her two fellow-members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, committed suicide after a botched bank raid in November 2011. Zschäpe gave herself up to police four days later, after allegedly setting fire to the flat the three shared in Zwickau, Saxony.

In 2011 the group claimed responsibility in a video for murdering nine immigrants, eight of them of Turkish descent and one Greek, as well as a German policewoman.

On Monday the families of the NSU’s alleged victims glimpsed Zschäpe for the first time. „They remained very calm as the defendant entered the courtroom and noted how together she appeared,” said Barbara John, the government-appointed ombudsman for the victims’ families. Until now the only image the German public has seen of Zschäpe, apart from snapshots of her with Mundlos and Böhnhardt, have been her police mugshot and a video of her dressed in a pink T-shirt, which was released by police in the hope that it would help their investigation.

Zschäpe appeared in court wearing a smart jacket and large hoop earrings, and smiling, her arms folded in a defiant stance. She turned her back to the cameras as press photographers and film teams captured her entrance. She has pledged to remain silent throughout.

The trial got off to a shaky start with Judge Manfred Götzl ordering several adjournments after Zschäpe’s team of lawyers lodged a complaint with him for bias – over a decision to frisk them for weapons, but not state prosecutors or police, as they entered the court building.

Zschäpe’s alleged accomplices, all of whom have a far-right background, include Ralf Wohlleben, 38, and Carsten Schultze, 33, who are accused of being accessories to murder in the killing of the nine men; prosecutors allege they supplied the trio with weapons and silencers needed to carry out the killings.

Andre Eminger, 33, who has the words „Die Jew Die” tattooed on his stomach, is alleged to have acted as an accessory in two of the bank robberies and a 2004 nail bombing in Cologne’s old town, in which 23 were injured, four seriously. He is also charged with two counts of supporting a terrorist organisation.

Holger Gerlach, 39, is charged with three counts of supporting a terrorist organisation.

The men appeared in court variously covering their faces with hooded jackets and ring binders.

Outside the court anti-fascist campaigners staged a protest. One group released hundreds of black helium balloons into the skies in commemoration of the NSU’s victims. Among the banners was one which read „Hitler-Child Zschäpe, you will pay for your crimes”.

Some Turkish groups held up posters depicting the victims, and black wreaths were laid near the courtroom as hundreds of police looked on. Two Turkish schoolgirls were apprehended by police after throwing bottles in protest at the lack of access for the public to the court.

Semiya Simsek, daughter of Turkish flower seller Enver Simsek who was the NSU’s first victim, expressed her relief that the case was starting after 13 years and lengthy delays. „She is happy that the trial is finally beginning, but everything she has been through is being brought up again and it’s very painful for her,” said her lawyer, Stephan Lucas, as she stood by his side outside the courtroom. She called the trial „one of the most significant in postwar German history, bearing in mind Germany’s historical, social and political dimensions”.

The trial, Germany’s biggest terrorist court case since members of the left-wing guerrilla group the Red Army Faction were in the dock 36 years ago, is expected to involve 600 witnesses. It is estimated the proceedings may take more than two years.

One of the questions victims’ families are hoping the case will throw light on is how the NSU managed to remain undetected while it went on its seven-year killing spree, and for several years thereafter.

In the dock, as much as Zschäpe and her alleged accomplices, are the German security services which failed to see a link between the killings and the far-right scene. They face accusations of failing to share information between German states, of destroying documents, and even in some cases of displaying sympathies towards the far right. „At least one consequence of this trial should be the complete reorganisation of the security services’ architecture,” said Cem Özdemir, co-chair of the German Greens, who has Turkish roots.

The trial was beset with controversy even before it started, with a row over the allocation of seats for the media which meant that initially no Turkish media had a place in the courtroom.

As a consequence, every detail of the trial is being raked over, not least the surnames of Zschäpe’s defence lawyers, Wolfgang Heer, Wolfgang Stahl and Anja Sturm, (army, steel and storm), words which are very evocative of Nazi language and history.