'Killer Mandate': NSU Defense Attorney Leaves Firm and Berlin
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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Charge: complicity in 10 homicides, two bomb attacks and 15 armed robberies, membership in a terrorist organization, attempted murder and arson
Pre-trial detention: since November 8, 2011
NSU links: Zschäpe is believed to be a founding member of the NSU terror cell. According to the federal prosecutor's office, she and the group's two other members, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos -- both of whom are deceased -- held roles of equal importance within the cell. It is believed that Zschäpe did not carry out any murders herself, but was indispensable to the NSU group. According to the prosecution, Zschäpe helped to create a veneer of normalcy for the terror cell. She was in charge of logistics, served as accountant and rented vehicles for the group. In addition, she archived articles discussing the crimes of the terror cell and allegedly was involved in procuring a weapon and false documents. Finally, the 37-year-old is believed to have set fire to the apartment that had served as the final hiding place for the trio and to have sent out DVDs in which the group claimed responsibility for the crimes.
Charge: accessory to murder in nine cases
Pre-trial detention: since November 29, 2011
NSU links: Wohlleben, born in 1975, allegedly helped the terror trio financially when they went into hiding in 1998 and provided them with money later. In late 1999 or early 2000, Wohlleben, a former functionary of the far-right NPD party, allegedly helped the group acquire a handgun and ammunition with the aid of a courier. The semi-automatic Ceska 83 was identified as the murder weapon in nine cases of homicide involving small business owners and employees of foreign descent.
Charge: support of a terrorist organization in three cases
Pre-trial detention: November 13, 2011 until May 25, 2012
NSU links: Holger G., born in 1974, is believed to have been in contact with the terror trio since the late 1990s. He allegedly gave over his drivers' license, a health insurance card and his passport to the NSU, enabling its members to act covertly and commit racially motivated crimes. He also transported a weapon for the terrorists. G. confessed his crimes in a comprehensive statement to the investigators.
Charge: accessory to murder in nine cases
Pre-trial detention: February 1 until May 29, 2012
NSU links: Carsten S. -- allegedly with money from Ralf Wohlleben -- bought the weapon that killed nine small business owners and employees. The 32-year-old also delivered the handgun to the terror cell in Chemnitz. S. has acknowledged his involvement in a comprehensive confession to the federal prosecutor's office.
Charge: support of a terrorist organization, complicity in a bomb attack and accessory to robbery
Pre-trial detention: November 23, 2011 until June 14, 2012
NSU links: The trained stonemason allegedly assisted the terror cell starting in the 1990s, helping them with car rentals and the lease for an apartment. The 33-year-old and his wife allegedly visited the NSU-members regularly, and E. allowed Zschäpe to pose as his wife in 2006.