Last week, it seemed as if a German court had finally found a clear answer to a brutal crime committed on behalf of a ludicrous notion of honor: life in prison for the gunman, who was convicted of murder and kidnapping, 10 years for the oldest sister and one brother, for complicity in murder and kidnapping, and five-and-a-half years for two other brothers, also for kidnapping.
It was the verdict against the five siblings in the Özmen family, from Detmold in northwestern Germany, who had first kidnapped and then murdered their sister Arzu. The court ruled that the man who pulled the trigger, putting two bullets in the victim's left temple, was not the only offender, but that those who were not actually present at the killing were also culpable.
The German constitutional state has long wrestled with so-called honor killings. In many cases, judges have considered it a mitigating circumstance that the offenders' actions were often influenced by their archaic moral values. In 1994, the Federal Court of Justice tried to sweep away this misguided tolerance. But it took a while before the high court's decision reached all German courts.
It also took a while for judges in the country to become suspicious when it was always the youngest son, or the family member who was most expendable, who claimed to have acted in the heat of passion. They began to develop a healthy skepticism when one family member accepted all blame and went to prison for years, even though an entire family had in fact planned the crime.
Michael Reineke, a judge at the Detmold District Court, scrutinized the case at hand very carefully. He didn't believe Osman Özmen when he claimed that he had killed Arzu alone and without premeditation. Instead, Reineke found, the siblings committed the crime together. His guilty verdict seemed to provide what women's rights activists outside the courtroom were demanding: justice for Arzu. Nevertheless, there was an overtone of unease to his grounds for the judgment. "It was a premeditated murder. We would be the last to claim that we have discovered the truth. At every turn, we had the feeling that what we were hearing couldn't possibly be true. We were served up an enormous tall tale."
One person is strangely absent in this tale: Fendi Özmen, 52, the head of the family. His children testified in court that he had not played a role in the abduction and murder of his daughter. The eldest daughter Sirin held "the plan of action" for Arzu's abduction in her hand, said the judge. She admitted as much and a large body of evidence supports the contention. Sirin pursued her sister and followed the plan with practically fanatical dedication.
But a closer look at the life of the older daughter suggests that she may not have been the driving force behind the murder. At 27, she was still living with her parents, who forbade her from coming home too late or spending the night elsewhere. There are several indications that she had insufficient freedom to even determine the course of her own life. How, then, could she have been the sole arbiter over the life of her sister Arzu?
At about 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2011, Sirin and four of her brothers abducted their sister Arzu, 18, from the apartment of her German boyfriend Alexander, 23. The couple's love affair had repeatedly been the cause of strife in the Özmen family. They are Yazidis, a Kurdish religious group who have emigrated to Germany in large numbers in recent decades. Yazidi religion forbids relationship with non-Yazidis.
Eleven weeks later, a greenskeeper found Arzu's body next to a golf course in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. The fate of the girl, who had managed to flee to a women's shelter and was given a new identity, only to be killed in the end by her own family, touched people throughout Germany.
Arzu came from a family that seemed to be the model of successful integration. The Özmens had fled from eastern Anatolia to Germany 25 years ago. Sirin, the eldest daughter, obtained a high-school diploma, became an administrative employee with hopes of moving up the ranks and became active in the Ver.di public services trade union. In her hometown of Detmold, Sirin Özmen, a woman with the well-proportioned face and bright smile, was seen as proof positive that integration can work. Her brothers Kirer, 25, Kemal, 24, Osman, 22, and Elvis, 21, all hardworking tradesmen, were also doing well in Germany.
A Facebook Confession
All five were arrested shortly after Arzu's abduction. Alexander had recognized them.
The siblings did not break their silence until they were in court. The first to speak was Sirin, who testified for one-and-a-half hours. With her dark curls pulled modestly back from her face, she recited pages of notes she had made on a pad of paper, stressing that she had always been nothing but concerned about Arzu. It was a farce, the public prosecutor felt.
Sirin also described her role in the Özmen clan. She managed the family's money. She was the legal guardian of an autistic sister and the care-dependent grandfather. She looked after her siblings and claimed that she had encouraged them to do well in school. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until family members found complaints from Arzu's school in her room, a pregnancy test and a letter indicating that she had been caught shoplifting in a supermarket. And then Arzu wrote on Facebook that she was dating Alexander.
The police files reveal how the family reacted to these transgressions. Arzu was beaten with a wooden club. When she went to the hospital, she told the staff there that she had fallen from her bicycle. When she returned home, the family took away her identification documents and locked her up. She managed to escape through an open cellar door on Sept. 1, and she filed charges against her father Fendi and her brother Osman on the same day. Now, in addition to violating religious rules, Arzu had also publicly exposed the family patriarch. "That alone was almost her death sentence," Judge Reineke said in the trial.
After the charges had been filed, the police paid a visit to the Özmens, during which Sirin interpreted for her father. She also made it clear to the police officers that this was a private matter that the family would handle on its own.
After that, Sirin told the court, the family decided to exclude Arzu. When the judge asked her who had made this decision, she would not say who it was. "Her name was not to be mentioned anymore. But I had my mind set on getting her back." She said that she had wanted to bring the family back together.
"So you were the driving force in the search for Arzu?" the judge asked.
"Yes, I admit that I was," Sirin said.
Sirin was single minded in her search, abusing her position with the city to find her sister. She wrote to many women's shelters in the region, sometimes sending her letters by certified mail with return receipt; she tried to hack into Arzu's Internet accounts; and she terrorized her sister with countless emails. "Come back. You are a Yazidi! You are a Yazidi!" she wrote. "Do you want to spend you entire life in hiding? It could get exhausting. No matter what happens, we'll get you." On Sept. 21, at 1:56 a.m., Sirin wrote to Arzu: "Your father has died."
She also repeatedly went to Alexander's apartment until, on the night of October 31, she heard Arzu's voice through an open window. According to Sirin's version of the story, that was when she rounded up her brothers. In court, she repeatedly used words like "catastrophe" and "tragedy" for what happened next, as if she and her siblings were not responsible.
Sirin said that she, Osman and Kirer drove north with Arzu, intending to take her to an uncle's house, where she would "come to her senses." During a bathroom break, Sirin said, Osman went for a walk in the woods with Arzu. There were two shots, and suddenly Arzu lay dead on the ground. Both Sirin and Kirer claimed that they had not known that Osman had had a loaded weapon with him.
"She said bad things, and she spat at me. I lost control," said slender Osman, who cowered in his chair as if he were paralyzed on every day of the trial.