One of Germany's biggest ever neo-Nazi trials has been suspended in Koblenz - because the judge is too old. Critics have called the decision a scandal for the judiciary and accused the defense of deliberate delays.
Seventeen people suspected of belonging to far-right extremist organization Aktionsbüro Mittelrhein ("Mid-Rhine action office"), which was allegedly out to topple the German state, are likely to walk free after the Koblenz court announced it was suspending proceedings this month.
The unfinished trial lasted five years, or 337 court days, and originally involved 26 defendants, 52 defense attorneys, more than 120 witnesses, and a charge sheet that ran to 926 pages. Charges included founding a criminal organization, property damage, arson and assault.
The trial has now been suspended because of judge Hans-Georg Göttgen's impending retirement. Since German law does not allow a new judge to be installed without a re-trial, the court deemed that the likely punishments for the crimes did not justify the massive legal effort, releasing a statement on Tuesday saying that the case was being closed because of "overlong duration."
The court added that two of the defendants were entitled to compensation for their time in detention, since the evidence presented so far suggested that they would have been acquitted. Compensation for the other 15 defendants was turned down, since "serious suspicion" remained against them.
Confusion and delay
The decision is not yet legally binding and the state has a week to appeal. In a statement to DW, the Koblenz prosecutors said that they would "carefully examine" the court's ruling and then decide whether to take other further legal action.
But the court's irritation about the developments and the behavior of the defendants and their attorneys was evident not far below the surface. In its ruling, released to DW and other media outlets with names redacted, the court blamed the defendants and their attorneys for "sabotaging" the trial and said that an additional judge had not been appointed when the trial began in August 2012 because "no one could have predicted" that the proceedings would not be concluded before the judge's retirement.
Some of the bizarre incidents in the trial suggest that the court was occasionally struggling to maintain control. The court reported that trial days were lost for two stink-bomb attacks, noisy protests from right-wing supporters of the defendants, an unusual number of illnesses among the defendants - especially when it became clear that the judge's retirement was drawing close - and five-minute toilet breaks extending to 20 minutes. There were also reports of defendants spitting on the table where a prosecution witness was sitting during a break and drawing swastikas in the toilets of the courtroom. But in no case could an individual be singled out.
The trial was also disrupted by hundreds of motions introduced by both the prosecution and defense - these included over 400 procedural motions, 240 applications for evidence (in some cases when a text message was presented), and more than 500 challenges on the grounds of bias (jurors had to be replaced for giving chocolate Santas to prosecutors and looking at their cell phones for over half an hour). On top of that, defendants were caught reading novels, and lawyers were ticked off for playing card games on their laptops. "Sometimes I felt like I was in a madhouse," one defense lawyer was quoted in the German news magazine Der Spiegel as saying.
Defense defends itself
The defense attorneys, some of whom were associated with the far-right scene, denied all accusations of sabotage: "The lawyers did their duty by exhausting all procedural possibilities," attorney Günther Herzogenrath-Amelung told the SWR broadcaster. There is also an online campaign on behalf of the defendants, entitled "We will sue," which described the whole trial as a "judicial scandal," and said that the accusations on the charge sheet were baseless.
But many of these were serious. According to state prosecutors, the Aktionsbüro Mittelrhein was thought to favor a state "on the model of the National Socialist regime," and named its headquarters in Ahrweiler, western Germany, the "Brown House" - the same name adopted for the headquarters of the original Nazi party in Munich.
Among other things, the 17 members of the group were accused of beating leftists, drawing swastikas on walls and putting a GPS tracking device on the car of an official from the social affairs ministry. In 2011, the group allegedly mounted a sustained assault on a left-wing housing commune in Dresden, smashing several windows and throwing fireworks at the building.