One of the longest and most expensive trials in German postwar history has ended with a life sentence for the sole survivor of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell, but failed to answer questions raised by victims’ relatives.
Beate Zschäpe, a former member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) group, was on Wednesday sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 10 people, two bombings and several crimes of attempted murder and robbery between 2000-2007. Nine of the NSU’s 10 murder victims were immigrants.
Munich’s state court judge Manfred Götzl attributed Zschäpe, 43, with serious culpability, meaning that while still legally possible, it was highly unlikely she would be released after 15 years.
The sentence was largely as a result of the state prosecutor’s opinion that even though the court could not prove Zschäpe had been present at any of the crime scenes, she “had been aware of, contributed to, and in her own way co-piloted” the neo-Nazi cell’s killings.
The two other known members of the NSU, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide after a failed bank robbery on 4 November 2011, shedding light on underground terrorist activity that had gone undetected for 13 years. Many experts question how the trio could have gone undetected for so long without a sizeable support network across Germany.
The defence lawyer Mathias Grasel, who took over after Zschäpe sacked her legal team in 2014, said on Wednesday he would lodge an appeal against the verdict. “Instead of punishing Zschäpe as a representative, a constitutional democracy has to be able to bear it when the true culprits can no longer be prosecuted for their cruel crimes.”
The court had on Tuesday handed sentences to four other people connected to the group. Ralf Wohlleben, who was found to have supplied the group the gun with which the murders were carried out, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
André Eminger, who turned up in court wearing a jumper with the logo of a far-right heavy metal band and was found to have assisted the cell in hiring apartments and vehicles, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Many observers of the trial voiced surprise at the leniency of the sentences. “If you look at the sentences for Zschäpe’s co-conspirators, this is an unbelievably soft verdict,” said Dirk Laabs, the co-author of a book about the NSU. “It’s hard to image people accused of supplying weapons and logistics for terrorist activity would have got off so lightly if this had been a trial about an Islamist cell.”
Relatives, friends and supporters of the NSU’s victims also say the five-year trial, which involved questioning more than 600 witnesses, had failed to shed light on the extent to which Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), was aware of the group’s murderous activities.
Police had for years ruled out a racist motives to the killings, assuming they were related to gang warfare among the country’s German-Turkish population.
Yet over the course of the trial it emerged the terrorism cell had repeatedly crossed paths with the intelligence service’s paid informants within the neo-Nazi scene.
During the April 2006 murder of Halit Yozgat, 21, an intelligence agent employed by the central German state of Hesse had even been present inside the cafe where the murder took place, but neglected to report the incident.
When the judge read out his verdict on Wednesday, Yozgat’s father, Ismail, repeatedly cried out.
Lawyers representing the victims’ families have accused the domestic intelligence agencies of actively sabotaging the prosecution’s investigation in order to protect its informants. During the trial, one employee at the BfV’s headquarters admitted to destroying files on seven informants only days after the existence of the NSU cell came to light in 2011.
Parliamentary fact-finding commissions covering the failings of the intelligence agencies are taking place in five German states.
This week, activists in 20 German cities renamed about 200 streets to honour the victims of the NSU murders.
The Turkish foreign ministry in Ankara expressed its dissatisfaction with the outcome of the trial, noting that no light had been shed on the role of the “deep state”. It said: “In this respect we consider the verdict non-satisfying.”
The daughter of the NSU victim Mehmet Kuba??k, welcomed the verdict against Zschäpe but said it should only be the first step in a longer process. “My hope now is that all of the other helpers of the NSU can be found and sentenced,”, Gamze Kuba??k said.
“If the court is honest, it must admit that some gaps remain. As long as these gaps remain, my family and I cannot close this chapter.”