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Germany: NSU murder verdict facing challenges from all sides

May 16, 2020

One of Germany's biggest far-right murder cases was bizarre from the outset. The prime suspects were dead, and shredded evidence cast severe doubt on German authorities' actions. The verdict could yet face revision.

Deutschland NSU Prozess
Image: Reuters/M. Rehle

Almost two years ago now, Beate Zschäpe was convicted of deliberately and knowingly playing her part in 10 murders. The court also found that the neo-Nazi plots had been driven by "base motives," which is important in German law to secure the possibility of a genuine life sentence without the likelihood of early release. 

The full written reasoning behind the verdict was recently published. Weighing in at 3,025 pages, it's hardly short. Nevertheless, it appears to have satisfied nobody. 

Zschäpe's lawyers are seeking revisions, which can't really come as a shock: she received the toughest sentence available despite not having been physically present at or directly implicated in any of the 10 murders.

It was the two men in her life, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, who killed nine people with migrant backgrounds and one female police officer. The verdict described the killings as "collective and premeditated acts," and says that Zschäpe played a key role in identifying both the targets and the locations for the killings. The 45-year-old claimed in court that she did not know about the murders until they had taken place. The court disagreed: its verdict pointed to her absence from the crime scenes being entirely intentional — she was to provide her friends a false alibi and ensure they had a safe bolt hole after the crimes.

Three others, convicted of supporting a terrorist group and helping to facilitate murder, also intend to challenge, as does the Federal Prosecutor's Office. The full written verdict and reasoning might have been 19 months in the making, but challenges for revision must be submitted within one month — that deadline is now looming.

Read more: The German authorities' many failures in dealing with the NSU

A small, isolated cell is convenient for the authorities

Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe formed a sort of far-right love triangle operating under the radar for around 13 years, mainly living out of small flats and mobile homes and committing the occasional robbery to raise funds. They called themselves the NSU, the National Socialist Underground. 

When one of these robberies went wrong in 2011, leading police back to their hideout, officers would find the charred bodies of Mundlos and Böhnhardt in a mobile home plus the service weapon of a murdered policewoman. Only then did it begin to emerge that the trio had committed a series of far-right murders between 2000 and 2007, which had been largely dismissed at the time by police as probable turf wars between organized crime groups with migrant backgrounds. As the trio's connections to independent police informants and the mass-shredding of files pertaining to their case came to light, Germany's security services began to face a far larger scandal than simply having misdiagnosed a series of murders.

The burned-out apartment in Zwickau in Germany where Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe were based in 2011. Zschäpe torched it when her accomplices were found by police and killed themselves.
After Mundlos and Böhnhardt were cornered then committed suicide in a mobile home, Zschäpe torched the flat they had been hiding out inImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For a group of 19 lawyers representing the victims, this aspect is what's lacking in the reasoning behind Zschäpe's conviction. They have written an open letter describing the lengthy tome as a "monument to the failure of the legal system,"  saying that much of the relevant evidence has been "shortened to the point that it's unrecognizable, or simply not mentioned."

Victims' lawyers aghast at what is missing

Lawyer Sebastian Scharmer represents joint plaintiff Gamze Kubasik, whose father Mehmet was murdered in Dortmund in 2006. In his view, the main aim of the trial, besides convicting the sole surviving core member of the National Socialist Underground, was "to shed light on the crimes of the NSU more generally." In particular, he says that should have included identifying the group's accomplices and support network, and investigating the failings of Germany's domestic intelligence agency (the Verfassungsschutz). Scharmer tells DW that there was plenty of evidence suggesting that court testimony from these informants was not entirely true. "And yet everything that happened is no longer present in this written verdict." 

For him, the verdict largely overlooks or at least underplays what should be a core set of questions in any such case: "How large, and just how dangerous were these underlying structures? Who else really helped co-found the group? How many others were involved?" 

Back in 2012, when news of shredded files had forced the head of the Verfassungsschutz to quit, Angela Merkel pledged that investigations would yield "complete" clarity on what really happened. For Scharmer, there's no dispute that the court case did not achieve this, and that it couldn't do so by itself, but he says Merkel and the state is yet to truly deliver clarity on any stage.

"And this leaves the loved ones of the victims killed or wounded by the NSU alone," Scharmer says. 

Read more: The rise of Neo-Nazi crimes is a legacy of the NSU

A retrial is not impossible

In Scharmer's view, the Germany security agencies could scarcely have done a better job if they had written the court's reasoning themselves. If the NSU really was a limited group of three people with just a handful of helpers, then the case is largely closed from a policing point of view. The verdict also points to an isolated and radicalized cell, rather than to structural problems enabling their crimes. But Scharmer warns that if this conclusion is mistaken, "then we will not be able to prevent future [far-right] attacks and murders." The 2019 killing of local politician Walter Lübcke and attack in Halle, plus this February's shooting in Hanau, add some weight to his claims.

While the victims' relatives and their lawyers do not dispute the guilty verdict against Zschäpe, they also lament the "ugly apathy" in the language of the written reasoning. 

The open letter laments that almost all victims are described "in almost identical ways." Instead the verdict could have "given them faces, and described the holes teared open by their murders." Several of the victims' relatives testified in the trial, but not one word from any of them pops up on any of the 3,025 pages.

Scharmer says this is why his co-plaintiff and others have expressed "great disappointment and a degree of bitterness." 

This feeling could yet intensify. Should Germany's Federal Court of Justice identify any lacking evidence or factual errors in the document, the trial might have to be restarted. And in that case, Beate Zschäpe might also hope for a milder sentence.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.