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Neo-Nazi NSU member Beate Zschäpe found guilty

July 11, 2018

The surviving member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), Beate Zschäpe, has been found guilty of 10 counts of murder. The trial was one of the biggest in postwar German history.

Neo-Nazi NSU member Beate Zschäpe found guilty of murder
Image: Reuters/M. Rehle

Beate Zschäpe, member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for the murder of ten people between 2000 and 2007, as well as her part in two bombings, and several robberies and attempted murders. She was also found guilty of membership in and the foundation of a terrorist organization.

The judge Manfred Götzl also attributed Zschäpe with serious culpability, which means the 43-year-old is likely to serve more than the minimum of 15 years. 

Ralf Wohlleben, who was found to have provided the gun with which nine of the murders were carried out, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two other accomplices, Holger G. and Carsten S., were sentenced to three years in prison each for helping a terrorist organization and nine counts of accessory to murder, while a third man, Andre E., was sentenced to two years and six months for helping the group. Andre E. was released, having already served his prison time during the trial.

Reporting from inside the packed court in Munich, where some people had queued overnight to get in, DW correspondent Hans Pfeifer said many neo-Nazis had made it into the courtroom and cheered loudly when Andre E. was released. Outside, DW correspondent Isil Nergiz said many people observed a minute's silence for the NSU's victims before the verdict was read.

Zschäpe was smiling as she entered the courtroom just after 9:40 a.m., and "tried to look unmoved" as she faced the cameras. He added that the defendant sat "almost motionless" as the judge read the reasoning behind the court's verdict.

The judge said the three members of the NSU had resolved to carry out "ideologically-motivated attacks" and kill foreign citizens, and had planned the murders together. He added that Zschäpe had played a "special role" in creating a "harmless legend" for the outside world, while the two male members of the group, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, now dead, had carried out the attacks.

The judge emphasized that the NSU's attacks could only have succeeded if all three members had planned them together, rejecting Zschäpe's defense that she had not committed any of the killings herself and had only found out about them afterwards.

Zschäpe's attorney Wolfgang Heer said afterwards that his client would lodge an appeal, calling the conviction "legally flawed." "The court reasoning is extremely thin," he said. "The court is very clearly flouting the unambiguous rulings of the Federal Court of Justice on complicity." 

Read more: Opinion: NSU trial underlines German state failures

Questions unanswered

The Munich state court ruling marks the end of one of the most important trials in Germany's postwar history. It was also one of the most complex, covering five years — more than 430 trial days — and featuring the testimonies of around 600 witnesses. Nine of the NSU's victims were of immigrant background; the tenth was a police officer.

Almost as soon as the verdict was released, a number of community organizations, political parties and lawyers released statements saying the verdict should not be the conclusion of the NSU case and calling for more investigations into Germany's neo-Nazi terrorist network. 

German court hands down life sentence in neo-Nazi murder trial – DW's Frank Hofmann reports

Chancellor Angela Merkel promised in 2012 that there would be a "gapless" investigation into what has since become known as the "NSU complex," and there have been 13 separate parliamentary inquiries at both federal and state levels, but they have been hampered by official obstacles, as domestic intelligence agencies destroyed files and protected paid informants in the neo-Nazi scene.

"Angela Merkel and many others promised the victims a complete investigation. That promise was broken," said Gökay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish community organization TGD, in a statement.

"The people who are dead are dead because of the neo-Nazis' hate and racism," Mehmet Daimagüler, an attorney who represented two of the victims' relatives in the trial, told DW last week. "But they're also dead because of a racist investigation. They're dead because the state, in the form of the intelligence agencies, helped to develop this movement, supported it financially, gave it legal protection. Without thinking of the consequences."

The socialist Left party said the verdict had failed to shed light on the NSU network. Left party MP Petra Pau blamed Merkel for allowing herself to be "driven into lying" after her 2012 promises "by interior ministers, federal and state authorities, and especially the domestic intelligence agencies." "And I have to say she let it happen," said Pau. "I have not heard anything else from her since then and not seen any efforts at all at breaking through the investigation blockade set up by the authorities."

But Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) praised the efforts of both the judge and state prosecutors and defended the government's investigations into the case.

"The trial was only part of the efforts towards a thorough investigation that Angela Merkel announced in 2012," said Armin Schuster, CDU representative in the Bundestag's domestic policy committee. "Questions remain open after the verdict that are especially important for the victims and their relatives: Why were these specific people killed or injured by explosives? Who chose them to be victims of murder and bombings? Who may have helped Böhnhardt and Mundlos at the crime scenes?"

Barbara John, government ombudswoman for the relatives of the NSU victims, also defended Merkel. "Even the chancellor is not powerful enough to look into what the public servants are doing all day long," she told DW. "And when we look at what was happening there, you will see that change has to come out of these groups themselves. It is their obligation now to see why this could happen and why they could not prevent it."

Read more:The NSU crime scenes

Trusting the authorities

The trial took place amid persistent suspicion about the failures of German security forces to capture the NSU while it was active, despite evidence that its existence was well-known in neo-Nazi circles. Observers have also accused the police who originally investigated the murders of institutional racism for ruling out neo-Nazi motives at an early stage.

For several years, detectives went down blind alleys as they worked on the assumption that the killings were related to Turkish organized crime. Police were also criticized for labeling the killings as "kebab murders" at the time.

Abdulkerim Simsek, whose father Enver was shot dead by the NSU in 2000, told DW on Tuesday: "First my mother was accused, then my uncle, then everyone around us was constantly under investigation. That went on for eleven years. My father wasn't treated like he was the victim; instead he got the blame. It was the whole of the media. Whether it was the so-called 'kebab murders' of Turkish people or drug offenses. The press always said my father was to blame. And that's how we felt."

Ahead of the verdict, Sofuoglu said that the Turkish community's trust in the security forces was "deeply shaken." He accused state prosecutors of sticking rigidly to the theory that the three members of the NSU had worked in isolation. 

The NSU was only discovered on November 4, 2011, after the bodies of Böhnhardt and Mundlos were found in a burned-out motorhome following a failed bank robbery in Eisenach, in an apparent murder-suicide pact. Zschäpe turned herself in to police four days later, but not before setting fire to the trio's shared apartment in Zwickau, destroying evidence. She was also found guilty on Wednesday of arson.

Prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Zschäpe and prison terms of three to 12 years for the four people accused of helping the group. Her own attorneys had called for her release, arguing that she had not been an accessory to the crimes and pointing out that there was no evidence she was present at any of the murders.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight