Seeking Closure: Relatives Claim New Rights in Neo-Nazi Trial

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Photo Gallery: Victims Assert Rights in Neo-Nazi Trial Photos
REUTERS

The trial of the last surviving member of the murderous neo-Nazi terrorist cell for a string of racially-motivated murders begins in one week. While state prosecutors appear to be aiming for a speedy verdict, the trial also has an unprecedented number of joint plaintiffs -- relatives of the deceased who insist they be included in the process.

This has never happened before. Not in the first Auschwitz trial or other major Nazi cases, not in the trials of the left-wing terrorist Red Army Faction at Stuttgart's Stammheim prison or in other significant national security-related trials in the past. Nor in trials relating to accidents that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries.

But in the trial surrounding the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU) -- a neo-Nazi terrorist cell accused of 10 murders, most of them racially motivated -- 71 joint plaintiffs their 49 lawyers will fill the entire lower section of the courtroom at the Munich Higher Regional Court. Media observers will have to make do with seats in the "balcony" section, which are less desirable because of their distance from the front of the courtroom -- that is, provided they filed an accreditation application early enough to be assigned a seat. The only other option is to stand in line for hours in hopes of securing one of the remaining visitor seats.

This unusual situation is the result of reforms made in recent years to victims' rights laws in Germany. These new laws have substantially expanded the rights of joint plaintiffs, who can now participate in the trial practically on the same level as the public prosecutor. They are allowed to be present at the trial at all times, submit requests to present evidence, question witnesses and much more. Did lawmakers consider that one day there would be a criminal trial garnering international attention, in which such large numbers of victims and surviving family members would make use of these laws? Probably not.

Photo Gallery

9  Photos
Photo Gallery: Victims of Neo-Nazis, and the State
Halit Yozgat, a German citizen from Kassel in central Germany, unmarried and without children, was 21 when, shortly before 5 p.m. on April 6, 2006, two strangers walked into the Internet café his father had recently helped him open. Yozgat was sitting behind a desk that served as a counter. Several computer stations were occupied.

Sitting at one of the computers in the back room of the café was Andreas T., an employee of the state of Hesse's intelligence agency, the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution. As he would later tell the police, T. had gone to the café to see if he had received a message from someone he had met on a dating website, iLove.de.

The two strangers, presumably the right-wing terrorists Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, walked up to the desk. One of the men suddenly pulled out a Ceska 83 pistol with a silencer and shot the unsuspecting Yozgat in the head. The bullet penetrated his skull horizontally and threw the young man sideways onto the floor. The perpetrators shot Yozgat a second time, either as he was falling or when he was already lying on the floor, this time in the back of the head.

Yozgat's father found his son at 5:05 p.m., but he was beyond help. The young man died at the scene from traumatic brain injuries caused by the bullets lodged in his head.

'Was It Really All Just a Coincidence?'

The presumed shooters, who allegedly killed nine other people, are not the defendants in the NSU trial, which begins April 17. Instead, the trial is directed against Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the three-person cell, as well as four presumed accomplices. Mundlos and Böhnhardt committing suicide on Nov. 4, 2011 after a botched bank robbery.

Halit Yozgat's surviving family members will participate in the trial as joint plaintiffs, accompanied by their attorneys from Hamburg, Doris Dierbach, Thomas Bliwier and Alexander Kienzle. "Our clients are not interested in the scope of the sentence that may be imposed on Ms. Zschäpe," say the attorneys. "They couldn't care less about this woman. Not even an acquittal would bother them. They harbor no thoughts of revenge. But the family desperately wants to see the death of their son and brother explained. They want answers to the question of why the government failed so blatantly, at all levels and for such a long time, and why some of the investigations were marked by such a unusual sense of restraint." The father asks incredulously: "Was it really all just a coincidence?"

It's a fair question. How else should the parents of Halit make sense of the presence of Andreas T., an employee of the state's internal intelligence agency, at the scene of the crime just as the crime was committed? How should they interpret the fact that T., unlike all other witnesses at the scene, says he did not notice the killing or even hear anything unusual? T. reportedly told a psychologist that he may have noticed something but "suppressed" it.

Suppressed? The investigators made no headway with a so-called cognitive interview, which includes a reenactment of the incident to help improve the memory of the witness. The psychologist questioned T.'s willingness to remember what happened and believes that his claim of having repressed his memories is impossible.

Confidential Informants Not Allowed to Testify

On top of other details Halit's family finds suspicious, there's the the fact that T. himself was once a suspect. But despite that, Volker Bouffier, then the Hesse interior minister and now the state's governor, refused to allow the sources T. had been in contact with on the day of the murder to testify, even though the public prosecutor's office and the police had a pressing interest in their testimony. The State Office of Criminal Investigation emphatically asked Bouffier for the release of records, but to no avail.

A police memorandum suggests that an interrogation "and the resulting loss of T.'s sources" would, in the opinion of the state intelligence official in charge of preserving secrecy, constitute "the greatest possible disaster" for the agency. Why?

What should the surviving family members of a murder victim think when the state intelligence agency cynically notes: If such interrogations were approved, it would be easy for foreign agents to cripple the entire German domestic intelligence system. All they would have to do is place a dead body near a handler or one of his informants.

What is so striking about these oddities is that police officer Michèle Kiesewetter was then shot to death in the southwestern city of Heilbronn a year later, on April 25, 2007. Or rather, her murder was allowed to happen, since the police still were not on to the neo-Nazis. The Yozgat family's attorneys speculate that the authorities might have tied Mundlos and Böhnhardt to the murders earlier if they had been able to question any right-wing sources Andreas T. had spoken with on the day Halit died.

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