A 28-year-old German student was found guilty of founding a criminal organization and committing six serious attacks on neo-Nazis, in an unusual case of violent left-wing extremism in Germany.
She was sentenced to five years and three months in prison but was later told she would only have to return to jail if she also loses an appeal. Her three male co-defendants were sentenced to around three years in prison each.
The defendants were greeted on Wednesday with a huge round of applause, many of them waving and smiling to friends and relatives in the courtroom in Dresden. When Lina E. herself was brought in, the applause was even louder and longer, with virtually the whole of the gallery, apart from the journalists, standing up.
As soon as the sentence was read, the gallery began chanting leftist messages of support. The judge called for quiet so he could read out his reasoning, saying: "Anyone who is interested in hearing why the verdict was the way it was, can stay." Someone immediately shouted: "Because you're fascist friends!" Others called out: "F***ing class justice!"
Last-minute reprieve, at least pending appeal
The judge immediately called a 15-minute break, during which people who had shouted were to be removed by security.
There were loud groans of protest and tuts of disgust from the gallery throughout the reading of the court's reasoning. The judge said that, even if the political motivations of the defendants, such as fighting right-wing extremism, could be regarded as justified, that did not reduce the severity of their crimes. He also criticized the defense lawyers for describing the trial as "political justice."
The judge also took time to defend the German justice system, mentioning the number of convictions against violent far-right extremists that this court had itself handed down in the past few years. Again, this was greeted with scoffing and sarcastic laughter from the gallery.
However, late on Wednesday evening as the proceedings were drawing to a close, the judge gave the defendants' supporters in the courtroom a reason to cheer instead.
After spending an exhausting day reading the court's entire reasoning (which took upwards of eight hours, including breaks), presiding judge Hans Schlüter-Staats did have one more surprise: By now audibly hoarse after recounting the details of the police investigation in painstaking detail, the judge declared in the evening that Lina E. would be freed until the conviction was upheld.
Provided she gives up her passport and ID and reports to the police twice a week, Lina E. will be allowed to return home until any appeals are exhausted. If she does return to prison, she will have only around three years of her five-year sentence to serve, since she has been in custody since her arrest.
A protracted trial
State prosecutors said Lina E.* and her three co-defendants — Lennart A., Philipp M., and Jannis R. — carried out a series of attacks on neo-Nazis in the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony between 2018 and 2020, including two attacks on Leon R., a notorious far-right extremist who was himself arrested for allegedly forming a far-right extremist organization.
The group around Lina E. is believed to have raided a well-known neo-Nazi bar in the town of Eisenach in late 2019 and attacked Leon R. with hammers and batons. When the initial attack failed, the group attacked him again a few weeks later outside his car. Other neo-Nazis were left with broken bones and other injuries after the attacks.
Much of the prosecution's case rested on the testimony of a member of her group who turned state's witness: thirty-year-old Johannes D., who said before the Dresden Higher Regional Court that the four defendants had trained specifically for attacks on right-wing extremists. But later allegedly said that it was merely a matter of normal martial arts training for physical exercise.
The level of planning was key to the prosecution's case, as the accusation that Lina E. was the leader of a criminal organization rested on arguments that the attacks were specially trained for.
A politically charged case
The case has created plenty of political tension, with the defense and far-left scenes in Lina E.'s home city of Leipzig saying that she has been scapegoated as a left-wing terrorist by both the media and the authorities. Many allege that the justice system is too lenient on neo-Nazi perpetrators.
"Free Lina" signs and collection boxes for her defense fund have been put out in the Leipzig district of Connewitz, a left-wing hub where Lina E. herself lived.
But Hendrik Hansen, a specialist in extremism and professor at the Federal University of Applied Administrative Sciences, argues that the media has, if anything, underestimated the dangers of left-wing extremism.
"This trial is a clear success," Hansen told DW. "In the area around Leipzig we are facing the rise of clandestine structures that are very well networked in the left-wing extremist scene, and who are using methods that they have not used before."
Hansen said Lina E.'s group could clearly be classified as a criminal organization, and could well be described as terrorist: "This was a whole group of people planning attacks so minutely that they were using the appropriate technology, like disposable mobile phones. They had scouts, who spied on the victims. The tasks within the group were very precisely divided up."
Hansen said that the evidence showed that the group was not merely planning street-fighting methods, but targeted assaults aimed at seriously injuring or even killing their victims. "Terrorism is defined as using politically motivated violence to spread fear and horror either within the general population or within a certain group of people," he said.
Who is Lina E.?
Lina E. was born in Kassel, central Germany, she showed interest in a career as a social worker working with disadvantaged youth, and during her studies wrote about how to deal with far-right radicalization among young people.
Kassel is located in the state of Hesse, which has a large far-right scene, and in 2006 the city was the scene of one of the 10 murders carried out by the right-wing terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Lina E. is reported to have become politicized by the uncovering of the NSU in 2011, which caused major controversy and investigations across Germany about law enforcement and intelligence failures.
She has now spent the last two and a half years since her arrest in the same prison in Chemnitz where the only known surviving NSU member, Beate Zschäpe, is also imprisoned.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
This article was first published ahead of the verdict and later updated to reflect news developments.
*Editor's note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing the full names of alleged criminals. Lina E.'s case ends only when she has exhausted all options for appeal.
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