Ever since the murder spree allegedly committed by the Zwickau trio of neo-Nazis came to light in early November, attention has focused on Beate Zschäpe, the sole surviving member of the group, who is currently in custody on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organization. But now her state-appointed defense attorney, who describes Zschäpe as a "nice, intelligent and educated person," wants to see her released from jail.
On Tuesday, Zschäpe's defense team, which consists of her public defender Wolfgang Heer and his colleague Wolfgang Stahl, filed a complaint against her detention with Germany's Federal Court of Justice. In a 24-page brief, the lawyers argued that, based on the files they had seen, there were insufficient grounds for suspecting their client of having founded a terrorist organization or being a member of such an organization.
At present there was no evidence of a firm organizational structure among Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Zschäpe that served to facilitate unlawful killings, the complaint said. In addition, the lawyers said, there was currently no proof of a common will to organize, which is also a legal criterion for a terrorist organization. Furthermore, the defense team continued, there is no evidence that their client was involved in creating the videos in which the Zwickau trio appeared to take responsibility for a series of murders.
The lawyers also complained that the Federal Prosecutor's Office had only granted them limited access to the relevant files. According to the defense team, many pages of the documents they had seen were completely irrelevant, or even illegible. In a statement, the lawyers said it was impossible to guarantee a fair trial under such conditions, and that Zschäpe's ability to defend herself was severely curtailed as a result.
Crimes that Shocked the Country
Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe are believed to have been members of a far-right terrorist organization calling itself the National Socialist Underground, which is suspected of committing at least 10 murders over a period of several years. The case came to light in early November after Mundlos shot Böhnhardt and himself in a recreational vehicle in Eisenach on Nov. 4 following a botched bank robbery. Later that same day, Zschäpe is alleged to have set the Zwickau apartment where she had lived together with Böhnhardt and Mundlos on fire. She went underground for a few days before giving herself up to police on Nov. 8. She has so far refused to comment on the accusations, however, leading to speculation that lack of evidence may make it impossible to prosecute her for being a member of a terrorist organization.
The revelations have shocked Germany and sparked a new debate over whether the country is doing enough to stop the activities of neo-Nazis. The case has also led to renewed calls to ban the far-right National Democratic Party, which is suspected of having links to the trio, and a discussion about the role of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which apparently failed in its duty to monitor right-wing extremists.
SPIEGEL ONLINE was the first publication to be granted an interview with Beate Zschäpe's public defender. Speaking in his Cologne office, Wolfgang Heer explained why he had decided to represent Zschäpe and his impressions of her as a person.
Wolfgang Heer: Because I am criminal defense lawyer. A client in detention is in particular need of a qualified defense. Until the final completion of the legal proceedings, the presumption of innocence naturally also applies to Ms. Zschäpe. I have no sympathy for extreme right-wing views.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you find it difficult to accept Zschäpe as a client?
Heer: No, I said yes very quickly. This is my job.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how did it come about that you were asked to represent her?
Heer: I can't tell you that.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why not?
Heer: That is subject to the confidential communication between the lawyer and client.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Beate Zschäpe is not being accused of some everyday crime. Instead, she is suspected of being involved in a particularly gruesome series of murders. Does that bother you?
Heer: I cannot allow it to do so. One always has to give unequivocal support to one's clients. At the same time, a public defender who loses his distance to the alleged crimes or in a certain way to his client is not doing his job.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's suppose you were to succeed in securing a shorter sentence for your client. Could you live with that?
Heer: Of course. I take a completely objective approach to this case. My personal opinion is completely irrelevant.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you been attacked because of your client?
Heer: No. The public clearly understands that my role in these proceedings is to assist Ms. Zschäpe against the overwhelming force of more than 500 investigators.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On your website, it says: "Remaining silent -- at least initially -- is the most effective form of defense." So far, Zschäpe has refused to comment on the accusations against her. Will she continue to remain silent?
Heer: We have advised her not to make any statements about the case for the time being, because we have hardly had any access to the files until now. We will decide whether she will testify once we have seen all the relevant documents from the investigation. Currently we have only seen about 500 pages, of which most are not significant in relation to the accusation of forming a terrorist organization. We have not even seen any of the files from the murder investigations.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the Federal Criminal Police Office already tried to question Beate Zschäpe?
Heer: No. I have asked them to refrain from all such attempts. She will not say anything in any case.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your client is currently in custody in a jail in Cologne. What does her daily routine look like?
Heer: Ms. Zschäpe spends 23 hours a day in a solitary confinement cell. She is allowed to exercise in the yard for one hour every day, but even there she is alone. She is completely isolated in jail. In addition, a neon light is on in her cell day and night, because of an alleged risk of suicide. In my opinion, however, there is no evidence for such a risk. We have therefore asked the institution's director to improve the detention conditions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does she know what the media is reporting about her and her alleged accomplices?
Heer: She has a radio and a TV, so she is able to follow the media coverage.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does she react to it?
Heer: She keeps herself informed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does she spend her time doing otherwise?
Heer: She reads a lot of books from the prison library.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What kind of books?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the public's view, Zschäpe is regarded as a dumb female companion of right-wing extremists, what Germans call a "Nazi bride." She is seen as a docile supporter of the alleged killers Böhnhardt and Mundlos. What is your impression of Beate Zschäpe?
Heer: She is well aware of the seriousness of her situation, but nevertheless she seems strong. Ms. Zschäpe appears to me to be a nice, intelligent and educated person. We talk about things on a high level -- not just about the case, but about many things that are currently happening in Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do her political leanings come through in these conversations?
Heer: No, not even slightly. As it happens, the Federal Prosecutor's Office arranged for a number of witnesses to be questioned who over a period of years spent their vacations at the same campsite on the (Baltic Sea) island of Fehmarn where Ms. Zschäpe, Mr. Böhnhardt and Mr. Mundlos took their vacations. All the witnesses' statements show that none of the three expressed political views during that time. In addition, all three of them apparently made a favorable impression. My client was even described as caring.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Beate Zschäpe receiving visitors while in detention?
Heer: Yes, her mother and grandmother will soon be visiting her. She is very much looking forward to that.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: During her conversations with you, has your client expressed regret?
Heer: Regret presupposes a crime, and that first needs to be proven. I do not see the slightest indication that Ms. Zschäpe was involved in unlawful killings in any way. I also see no convincing reason to suspect her of founding, or being a member of, a terrorist organization, which is why my fellow defense lawyer and I filed the complaint against her detention with the Federal Court of Justice on Tuesday.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was Beate Zschäpe's relationship with Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, and how did she react to their deaths?
Heer: I cannot make any comments relating to the details of my conversations with my client.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did Beate Zschäpe turn herself in to the police?
Heer: I can only say that she approached an attorney in Jena in order to present herself to the police. I don't want to provide any additional background at this time.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did she set the shared apartment on fire?
Heer: I don't want to comment on that, either.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did Zschäpe, Böhnhardt or Mundlos ever work for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency?
Heer: With regard to Ms. Zschäpe, I will not answer that question. And I have no information as far as Mr. Böhnhardt and Mr. Mundlos are concerned. I am, however, highly curious about the question of whether state institutions were somehow involved in the events.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you comment on a report by a major German tabloid that Beate Zschäpe might testify as a principal witness? Under Germany's principal witness rules, Zschäpe could be given a milder sentence if she agreed to testify.
Heer: The principal witness regulation implies that someone provides details that go beyond their own participation in a crime and thus provides assistance in resolving the case. But the question first arises if the allegation of a crime can be proven. Besides, it is not the federal prosecutor who decides whether it can be applied, but rather the court.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How are you actually being paid for representing your client?
Heer: I am a court-ordered defense attorney -- in other words, a public defender, paid for by the state. Mind you, what I receive is anything but an appropriate amount.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: According to the fee structures for attorneys, you are paid around 300 ($390) for the entire period of time up until the point where your client is officially charged, which can take many months. One can't live off of that.
Heer: I'm not complaining. And I would never accept money from a third party to represent this client. But it would simply be impossible to lead a case of this magnitude alone. That's why Ms. Zschäpe selected my colleague Wolfgang Stahl as an additional defense attorney. However, the Federal Prosecutor's Office continues to refuse to submit a petition that would enable Mr. Stahl to be defined as a public defender as well.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Speaking of money from third parties, were there any offers?
Heer: No, and that's a good thing.
Interview conducted by Jörg Diehl
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