Three arsonists convicted of firebombing a hostel housing refugees have been jailed for up to eight years. The Hanover court's presiding judge rejected denials, saying the motive was neo-Nazi racism akin to Hitler.
A Zimbabwean mother and her three children only narrowly escaped harm last August, authorities said during the trial, because the improvised gasoline bomb landed in a briefly unoccupied adjacent bedroom, where her 11-year-old son normally slept.
Thursday's sentencing coincided with a crisis meeting in Berlin on how to counter far-right crime, called by Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas and involving his counterparts from Germany's 16 regional states, or Länder.
Since early January, Germany has endured 25 arson attacks directed at accommodations intended for refugees.
Crime scene near Hameln
Last August's overnight attack took place in Salzhemmendorf, a Lower Saxony town of 9,000 residents about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Hameln, which is known worldwide for its rat-catching Pied Piper saga.
Up to 40 applicants for asylum, including refugees from Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Ivory Coast, had been living in the converted building, which was previously a school.
The main accused, identified only as 31-year-old Dennis L. in line with Germany's privacy rules, was jailed for eight years on a fourfold charge of attempted murder and one charge of arson.
His 25-year-old accomplice, identified as Sascha D. and said by the public broadcaster NDR to have been a member of the local fire brigade, was jailed for seven years and ordered to undergo alcohol-withdrawal treatment.
Extended jail term for woman driver
A 24-year-old woman, Saskia B, who had admitted driving the pair to the crime scene, was handed a jail sentence of four-and-a-half years.
That was four months longer than even the prosecutors had sought.
Prosecution and defense lawyers have a week to lodge appeals.
Akin to 'marauding SA'
Delivering the verdict, Hanover Regional Court's presiding judge, Wolfgang Rosenbusch, said the accused held a radical far-right xenophobic view of the world and knew their intended actions could result in death and injury.
He compared the trio with Hitler's "marauding SA militia" that set fire to premises across prewar Germany in 1938, and said: "That is the sequence in which your crimes rank."
"The underlying motivation was National Socialist [Nazi] racial hatred," said Rosenbusch, according to a quote relayed by NDR.
The accused had denied such motivation but did admit carrying out arson.
The men's excuse that they had been drunk was rejected by the court because of proof that their action was coordinated via WhatsApp messages.
"You were so clear in the head that you knew in that moment what you were doing," the judge told them.
During the trial, prosecuting attorney Katharina Sprave said the late summer evening of August 28, 2015, had begun with the accused listening to extreme right-wing rock music, getting drunk and then complaining about the "shit asylum seekers."
"What we have here is an attack made purposely against a place where dark-skinned people lived," Sprave told the court in her closing remarks.
Arson attacks, often on renovated buildings awaiting the arrivals of refugees, have become frequent in Germany since last year, when more than one million migrants arrived to claim asylum from conflict and repression in nations such as Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.
Justice ministers attend crisis talks
Chairing Thursday's Berlin justice summit, Maas described the surge in hate-motivated crimes, by up to 200 percent, as a "disgrace."
He said ministers agreed to improve coordination between federal prosecutors and their regional colleagues.
Maas (M) with Berlin city and Saxony-Anhalt justice ministers, Angela Kolb-Janssen and Thomas Heilmann
Special units would be created, statistics would be better collated to provide a better overview, and training would be boosted to improve recognition of racist crimes, he said.
Ministers also wanted to tackle hate-driven Internet traffic, seen as a precursor to far-right crimes, and better protect potential victims.
Since January, 25 arson attacks
There were more than 1,000 attacks of various types on shelters for asylum seekers during 2015, according to Germany's federal interior ministry, and nearly 200 in 2014.
From January until early March this year alone, 25 arson attacks were carried out, often on renovated premises shortly before refugee arrivals.
300 'underground,' says Heye
Suspects head underground
More than 300 far-right suspects sought on arrest warrants had gone underground, said Uwe-Karsten Heye, who chairs the anti-racism association "Gesicht zeigen! ["Show your Face"].
Heye, who was chief government spokesman under former Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder until 2002, also told the Protestant news agency EPD on Wednesday that the far-right campaign on the Internet was "unbelievably vicious" and mostly hidden behind anonymous user names.
He said authorities must prevail on big companies such as Google and Facebook to display only content where "the clear identity is recognizable."
Under recent pressure from Maas, Facebook has begun to erase hate comment within 24 hours. Critics say the rules need to be more binding.
Three regional justice ministers belonging to the Greens party called for more political education and exit schemes for persons trying to quit the far-right.
ipj/kms (epd, NDR, afd)