'Killer Mandate': NSU Defense Attorney Leaves Firm and Berlin

  Defense attorney Anja Sturm (center): "I am defending a person and not her actions."  Zoom
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Defense attorney Anja Sturm (center): "I am defending a person and not her actions."

German attorney Anja Sturm is one of three defense lawyers representing Beate Zschäpe, a suspected member of a murderous neo-Nazi terror cell. She says she has faced hostility from colleagues for taking the case and is now leaving the Berlin firm where she works.

It's not easy defending the woman at the center of the biggest trial seen in recent years in Germany. It certainly doesn't help if you are part of a trio that coincidentally carries the surnames Sturm, Stahl and Heer (Storm, Steel and Army), as the international press has noted, and if the main accusation in the case is that defendant Beate Zschäpe served as a member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) -- a neo-Nazi terror cell responsible for the murder of 10 people, mostly men of Turkish origin. For defense lawyer Anja Sturm, the pressure has been so great that she has decided to leave the Berlin-based law firm where she works.

Late last year, before the trial began, Anja Sturm said she wanted to make a contribution to ensure that "this attack on our democratic system is answered with a particular emphasis on the fundamental principles of rule of law. I am defending a person and not her actions." But colleagues at Sturm's law firm in Berlin don't appear to share the same nuanced views about the case.

In an interview published on Monday, Sturm said she had decided to leave her Berlin law firm as well as the city, moving with her family to Cologne as a result of pressure surrounding the case. Sturm told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel that she wasn't angry with the firm, but rather "deeply disappointed." She said she felt isolated at the firm and that the other lawyers had been worried her role as Zschäpe's lawyer would damage the company's reputation. Sturm claimed that one colleague even described the defense of Zschäpe as a "killer mandate" for the firm.

Sturm recently ran to become a member of the board of the local association of defense attorneys in Berlin, but she suffered a very clear defeat during the vote. She believes that rejection is directly related to her work defending Zschäpe. She said a few of her colleagues at the firm were very bothered by the fact that she is representing the suspected neo-Nazi. Sources within the Berlin legal scene said some attorneys had threatened to quit the association if Sturm were elected as a member of its board.

That may also be one reason Sturm only spoke to Tagesspiegel and is now remaining mum on the issue. "I don't want to make any more statements about the reason behind my decision to change law firms," Sturm said when contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE journalists.

Axel Weimann, a founder of the law firm, told Tagesspiegel he had "advised" his colleague "for several reasons" not to represent Zschäpe. He said he had spoken of the burden of constantly having to "justify, both professionally and privately, a decision to take on a client whose positions you don't share, and would never yourself accept." He said the NSU trial consumed so much of Sturm's time that she couldn't be involved in other cases the firm was handling either.

However, in a statement released on Monday afternoon, Weimann and partner Peter Meyer said the law firm had neither criticized Sturm for taking on Zschäpe as a client nor acted in a hostile manner towards her. It stated that Sturm would leave the firm on July 31.

In Cologne, Sturm now plans to work for the firm of lawyer Wolfgang Heer, also a defense attorney on the case. The third lawyer representing Zschäpe is Koblenz-based Wolfgang Stahl. When asked about the new professional relationship, Heer said, "I am very pleased to work together with my colleague during the NSU trial and beyond. I see good prospects for both of us."

'To Defend This Case Is a Suicide Mission '

In Berlin, Christian Ströbele, a member of parliament with the Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that no one should be criticized for choosing to serve as a defense attorney for a client. "When we are dealing with a crime, every person in our constitutional state has the right to a defense and is required to be provided with a lawyer," he said.

Sturm herself is considered to be an assertive and experienced defense attorney who has already served clients in major cases in the business community connected to companies like German engineering giant Siemens, steelmaker ThyssenKrupp and mobile network provider Vodaphone. She has also been part of teams defending Islamists and organized crime. But one experienced defense attorney told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "To defend this case is a suicide mission. The three (attorneys) are going to go through hell."

Months ago, when Sturm was asked why she accepted the mandate to serve as Zschäpe's defense lawyer, she gave a very spontaneous reply: "It's a historic case and it is hugely exciting to be a part of it."

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