Neo-Nazi murder trial reveals German police racism and spy agency obstruction, lawyers say
A German court last week sentenced Beate Zschäpe to life in prison for her role in a string of neo-Nazi murders of immigrants in Germany between 2000 and 2007 that long went unsolved due to what some have called institutional racism within the police and obstruction by the intelligence services.
The costly five-year trial of Zschäpe heard more than 600 witnesses in 438 hearings, with 95 co-plaintiffs represented by around 60 lawyers.
The Munich court concluded that the 43-year-old Zschäpe, along with the two other members of a trio calling themselves the National Socialist Underground (NSU), Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, had murdered eight ethnic Turks, a Greek citizen and a policewoman, carried out two bomb attacks and 15 bank robberies during a deadly politically motivated crime spree between 1998 and 2011.
Yet the group was only discovered by chance after Böhnhardt and Mundlos held up a bank in the central town of Eisenach in November 2011. Using bikes to get away from the scene, they then loaded them into a van in a side street. But a passerby saw them and called the police.
Police surrounded the van, but despite both men being armed, they did not put up a fight. Two shots rang out and smoke emerged from the van. One of the men was shot in the head and the other in the chest. Police concluded one had killed the other, then set fire to the van and shot himself.
Hours later, firemen were called to a house blaze 180 km to the east in the town of Zwickau. It was there that Zschäpe lived with both Böhnhardt and Mundlos and, on hearing of their deaths, set fire to the flat and fled. But three days later she turned herself into the police, saying, “I’m the one you’re looking for”.
Searching the burnt out shell of the flat, police found videos linking the gang to the killings, including images of the freshly murdered victims and the gun that had been used in nine of the killings. Zschäpe had also made a video confession.
But police investigations at the time of the gangs’ murders failed to see any link to neo-Nazi groups that were growing in strength at the time. Instead, officers were convinced the victims were linked to Turkish mafia drug-smuggling operations. Police overlooked and downplayed the possibility the killings were carried out by right-wing extremists and accused grieving relatives of withholding information and treated them as suspects.
The general public was not much more sympathetic. German media coloured their reports with stereotypes of Turkish immigrants and called the crimes “the döner killings”.
“The investigation went in the wrong direction, not due to the failure of individuals, but due to institutional racism,” said Alexander Hoffmann, a lawyer representing victims of the gang’s 2004 nail bomb attack that injured 22 people in a mainly Turkish neighbourhood of Cologne.
The trial also raised questions about the role of the German domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, which maintained a string of paid informers within neo-Nazi circles, including extremists who knew the NSU three, but failed to uncover their crimes, or link them to the murders.
Incredibly, one intelligence agent was present at the café where one of the victims, 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, was killed, but failed to report the incident.
Victims’ lawyers accused the BfV of sabotaging the police investigation to protect the identity of its informants. One BfV official admitted at the trial to shredding files on informants connected with the NSU days after its crimes came to light. Other state agencies followed suit and destroyed 400 documents connected with the case. Senior intelligence officials also ordered portions of a 2014 report into Yozgat’s murder be kept secret for 120 years.
During the trial it emerged that several informants, including senior neo-Nazis, had received large sums of money from state intelligence services and used some of it to fund their far-right activities.
Zschäpe was largely silent during the course of the trial and denied she had taken part in the murders, or knew about them beforehand. She refused to answer questions from lawyers representing victims’ families, but towards the end of the trial expressed regret for their loss. Zschäpe said she felt “morally guilty” but said the court should not to convict her “for something that I neither wanted, nor did”.
Judge Manfred Götzl nevertheless found her guilty of 10 counts of murder and sentenced her to life imprisonment. The court also found four co-defendants guilty of supporting a terrorist group. One of them was also found guilty of aiding and abetting murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The other three were given sentences of up to three years.
Lawyers for the families said the sentences were too lenient. “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 imagine 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.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the sentences were too light and implied members of the intelligence services had not just failed to act properly, but were behind the killings.
“Punishment of the top suspect and other suspects are not enough,” Çavuşoğlu said. “Who are behind these murders in the intelligence service, in the deep state? Which state institutions? They must be revealed and punished too.”
Gamze Kubaşık, the daughter of one of the NSU victims, welcomed the verdict against Zschäpe, but called for more investigation into those who had aided and abetted the gang.
“My hope now is that all of the other helpers of the NSU can be found and sentenced,” she 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.”