First Day of Historic Trial: German Court Adjourns Neo-Nazi Case Until May 14
Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial opened on Monday in the glare of the media as the main defendant, neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe, faced charges of complicity in a spate of racially motivated murders. But in the sign of how drawn-out the trial is likely to be, it was adjourned after her lawyers claimed the judge is biased.
The Munich court handling the historic trial of neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe on Monday adjourned proceedings until May 14 after her lawyers accused the presiding judge of being biased because he had ordered them to be frisked for weapons before entering the courtroom. Members of the prosecution weren't subjected to searches.
The adjournment on the first day is a fresh indication that the trial, which is being closely watched in Germany and abroad, especially in Turkey where most of the victims came from, will be lengthy and complex. The prosecution didn't even get a chance to read out the charges.
Zschäpe, 38, dubbed the "Nazi bride" in the German media, is believed to be the sole surviving member of the National Socialist Undergroundterrorist group that claimed responsibility in 2011 for murdering nine immigrants, eight of them of Turkish descent and one Greek man, as well as a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007.
The other two members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, committed suicide in November 2011 after a botched bank robbery. Only after that did their involvement in the killings come to light.
Shortly after the trial started, Zschäpe's lawyers filed a motion claiming that judge Manfred Götzl was unfit to run proceedings because the weapons searches placed them under suspicion of "being involved in forbidden and criminal actions."
The judge then ordered the adjournment to consider their motion, along with another motion brought by a co-defendant.
The police never seriously considered that the motive may be racismand instead suspected that the victims, who included a flower seller, a grocer and a part-time tailor, themselves had links with criminal gangs.
The case has alarmed the country's 3 million people of Turkish descent and has been a huge embarrassment to Germany because of the catalogue of errors made by the police and security authorities that exposed them to accusations of institutional racism and of having been blind to the threat of right-wing extremism.
Last month, Germany apologized for those errors at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, describing the murders as "without a doubt one of the worst human rights violations in Germany in the last decade."
Chief Prosecutor Herbert Diemer warned on Monday against expecting too much of the trial. "The court proceedings are focused on the crimes and on the people charged with those crimes," he told a news conference. "It cannot be the aim of the trial to clear up possible mistakes made in past investigations and proceedings."
Zschäpe Silent But Defiant
Zschäpe walked into the courtroom smartly dressed in a white blouse and black blazer, with her arms crossed defiantly. She wasn't handcuffed and quickly turned her back on the photographers and film cameras, and on the relatives of the victims desperate finally to see justive done. She chatted quietly with her three lawyers and seemed relaxed.
Four alleged accomplices, all of them committed neo-Nazis, are also in the dock in the mammoth trial in which over 600 witnesses will be called to testify. A total of 84 court days have been slated but that may not be enough. Some observers are saying the trial could last more than two years.
One of the defendants, who can be named only as Andre E. due to German privacy laws, has the words, "Die Jew Die" tattooed on his stomach.
"With its historical, social and political dimensions, the NSU trial is one of the most significant of postwar German history," lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement.
Some 500 police officers were deployed outside the courthouse -- where several hundred demonstrators, some waving the Turkish flag, demanded that justice finally be done, 13 years after the first victim, Simsek, was murdered in cold blood. Some held up photos of the victims. One banner read "Why were the authorities blind?"
The chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Kenan Kolat, said the defendants should get life in prison. "This is a historic trial. It's not enough to convict the accused," Kolat told Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Monday. "We hope that the maximum sentences will be imposed. And the maximum sentence is life."
The trial start was delayed by almost three weeks because of controversy over the allocation of seats for the media. In the first round, no Turkish news organization obtained a press pass, which caused an uproar that threatened to further tarnish Germany's reputation.
Every aspect of the case is proving to be sensitive, including the names of Zschäpe's defense lawyers. Both the German and British press have remarked on the fact that the the alleged NSU member is being defended by Wolfgang Stahl, Wolfgang Heer and Anja Sturm, surnames that evoke German Nazi history -- although none of the lawyers are of a far-right political persuasion.
However, the lawyer representing the defendant Ralf Wohlleben, Nicole Schneiders, used to have a regional leadership post in the far-right National Democratic Party. Wohlleben, 38, stands accused of having provided the NSU with the murder weapon -- a Ceska Browning pistol used in all the killings.
cro -- with wire reports
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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.