Massive Neo-Nazi Trial: Right-Wing Terror Case Offers Authorities Chance at Redemption

Prosecutors may widen the charges against Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the neo-Nazi terror cell that murdered 10 people from 2000 to 2007. The trial will offer a chance to rebuild faith in the German justice system after authorities botched their investigation into the killings. By SPIEGEL Staff

A photo of Beate Zschäpe on holiday in 2009. Zoom
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A photo of Beate Zschäpe on holiday in 2009.

Prosecutors investigating German neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe, arrested last November for alleged membership of a terror cell that killed nine mostly Turkish immigrants and a policewoman, may extend their charges against her to include abetment to murder, SPIEGEL has learned.

Zschäpe was initially accused of founding and being a member of a terrorist group in addition to being charged with first-degree arson. Those charges still apply, but the Federal Prosecutor's Office will likely also charge the 37-year-old with complicity in the 10 murders and in 14 bank robberies, as well as with attempted murder for setting on fire the apartment in Zwickau where she and the two other members of the terrorist trio, which called itself the National Socialist Underground, had lived.

Zschäpe burned the apartment after her accomplices Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos committed suicide following a botched bank robbery last November. A partially handicapped 89-year-old neighbor, Charlotte E., only managed to escape the burning building with the help of her niece.

Shortly after the death of Böhnhardt and Mundlos, Zschäpe sent macabre propaganda DVDs to news agencies and Muslim institutions in which the NSU claimed responsibility for the series of killings of Turkish shopkeepers that had baffled police for over a decade.

The sudden discovery that a far-right group had been behind the murders between 2000 and 2007 led to a public uproar and embarrassed German authorities. A number of parliamentary enquiries have been launched and top officials of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, have resigned after a series of blunders in their investigations were exposed.

Victims' Families Want Justice After Authorities Botched

In light of the mistakes made, huge importance is being attached to the trial of Zschäpe. Several alleged supporters of the cell are also likely to face prosecution. The families of the victims want to see justice done in a case in which the authorities failed from the start.

The neo-Nazis were able to go underground and lived quite freely in Germany for over a decade because intelligence agencies failed to act on or share relevant information. Furthermore, police for years dismissed the possibility that there might be a far-right motive behind the assassination-style shootings of the eight Turkish immigrants and one Greek man in cities across Germany.

The prosecutors are expected to finish preparing for trial in October. The victims' relatives hope the trial will restore the dignity of the victims who police suspected of being involved in criminal activities themselves -- as drug dealers, money launderers or weapons dealers. Investigators and the media for a long time belittled the murders, which were all committed with the same weapons, as "Döner Killings," a reference to Döner Kebaps, the Turkish-style sandwich ubiquitous in Germany.

"I want the terrorists and their supporters to be severely punished," said Ramazan Bas, the nephew of flower seller Enver Simsek, who was shot dead at his stall in Nürnberg in September 2000. "It won't bring my uncle back but I would regain my faith in the German state."

Can the justice system meet such expectations? It must shed light on a monstrous, unprecedented series of political crimes and show that after years of failure, it can bring the perpetrators to justice. If the trial fails to deliver, there will be grave consequences for German society. For people's sense of justice. For the integration of immigrants. And for faith in the security services.

Investigations now are nearing completion. Last Thursday the federal prosecutors presented their central findings on Zschäpe to the investigating judge at the Federal Court of Justice. Of 13 people arrested on suspicion of helping the terrorists, only two remain in investigative custody -- Zschäpe herself and Ralf Wohlleben, 37, a neo-Nazi who for a time held senior positions in the far-right National Democratic Party and who is accused of having helped the trio right from the start. In four cases, the judges ordered suspects to be released because the statute of limitations had expired or because of insufficient evidence against them.

13 Prosecutions in 11 Weeks

The biggest problem the prosecutors face is that they have to prove in each individual case that the defendants knew about the terrorist actions. After the Federal Prosecutor's Office took charge of the investigation on November 11 last year, they carried out a slew of raids and arrests. It was as if the state wanted to make up for its failings in record time. Within 11 weeks, Germany's top prosecutor launched no less than 13 prosecutions.

The images of handcuffed suspects being helicoptered to the court building in Karlsruhe and marched in by heavily-armed elite police officers were meant to show strength. At one point as many as 400 officers were working on the case. By mid-May, they had conducted 800 interviews, searched 23 premises and monitored 67 telephone and Internet connections.

Zschäpe is regarded as the only surviving member of the NSU. Anything other than a successful conviction for forming a terrorist group would be a surprise. But she is likely also to be accused of abetment to murder on up to 10 counts.

There is no evidence that she was at the scene of the crimes or fired shots herself but there are many clues that she knew about the killings. The investigators are convinced that she sent off the propaganda DVDs in which the NSU posthumously declared responsibility for the murders, and that mailing them was part of a plan that had been precisely laid out in the event of their deaths. The DVDs contain photos of three of the victims that could only have been taken by the murderers.

There is further incriminating evidence against her in the form of a statement made to the police by Holger G., a suspected helper who is likely to face prosecution himself. Holger G. said Zschäpe was present when Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt unwrapped a pistol that he had brought them.

And even if the judges don't accept the prosecutors' arguments that Zschäpe was complicit in the murders, German criminal law still permits a prosecution for "psychological abetment," which refers to supporting and encouraging a plan, a decision or the will to commit a crime.

So far, Zschäpe has steadfastly refused to comment. She faces a life sentence -- the charge of first-degree arson alone could get her up to 15 years in jail. Six of the 13 suspected helpers have cooperated with the prosecutors and in some cases have made comprehensive confessions.

Will Zschäpe Break Her Silence?

It is expected that Zschäpe's trial will last longer than a year. For one, dozens of lawyers for co-plaintiffs will be involved. But prosecutors also want to make a statement to the families of those who were murdered -- and plan to scrutinize every single murder in the series. Important questions remain unanswered: Who chose the victims? Were there accomplices in the various cities?

Everything would change were Zschäpe to talk. Whether she will break her silence is one of the big mysteries of the mammoth case. She already cooperated once before, in June 1996, during an investigation into the burning of a cross, Klu Klux Klan style. She shopped 18 comrades to the police, including Böhnhardt and Mundlos. Will she talk again?

On November 3, 2011, during a break in a court appearance, she said something that is giving investigators and relatives of the victims cause for hope. She said she "hadn't turned herself in to not give evidence."

Article reported by Sven Röbel and Holger Stark

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