Expectations are massive for the trial of the Nationalist Socialist Underground that got under way on Monday in Munich, Germany. They should be, too. Five people are being tried in connection with the murders of 10 people, most of them of Turkish descent, in what is believed to be the worst neo-Nazi crime wave in German history.
So far, the coverage has focused on a laundry list of issues. How public does a criminal trial need to be? And who must be given the right to witness it? The chief judge hearing the case badly botched the assignment of seats to journalists in the trial with a first-come, first serve accreditation process that meant that no Turkish journalists got seats. In the end, a Turkish newspaper had to sue at the country's highest court in order to get seats. Given the enormous sensitivity and need for composure in the trial, many asked whether the judge was up to the task. Time and time again, this administrative sideshow has threatened to consume the real and very serious questions the trial must address.
On Monday, for the first time, the relatives of the victims and those injured came together in a room with those believed to either be responsible or to have aided in a wave of racist killings that remained unsolved for years. They include Beate Zschäpe, 38, Ralf Wohlleben, 38, André E., 33, Holger G., 39, and Carsten S., 33. The five are answering to multiple charges in the 6th Criminal Division of the Munich Higher Regional Court.
Zschäpe, the leading defendant, is charged with being an accomplice to murder and with the formation of a terrorist group. She is the sole remaining survivor of the NSU, a neo-Nazi terror group believed to have murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007, eight men of Turkish descent, one of Greek descent and a female police officer.
Victims Want Answers to Crimes
It is likely the lawyers have informed the defendants of precisely what they should expect in court. But it is unlikely that much, if anything, will be stated by the defendants on Monday. First, a raft of motions are expected in the court. One such motion accuses the chief judge of bias. Others want the proceedings to be broadcast in a second room through CCTV, enabling more people access to the trial proceedings. The list of objections goes on and on. It is likely the first week of proceedings will be entirely taken up with the opening statements by the three representatives of the Federal Prosecutor's Office, the 11 defense lawyers and the lawyers representing the 53 joint plaintiffs.
The relatives of the victims, who are co-plaintiffs in the case, are feeling very insecure right now. Currently it is they who are attracting the most public attention rather than the accused and their suspected guilt. Some family members would like to see a short trial -- one that will allow them to finally answer the question of "why" their loved ones were murdered. Others are hoping that the defendants will be given the toughest sentences possible. Most of the relatives simply want their questions to be answered.
There's also discord among the lawyers. On Sunday, as some of them expressed the concerns of their clients, it became clear just how great the differences of opinion are on, for example, the potential legality of transmitting the proceedings via CCTV to a second room. Some argue it is legal whereas others argue it could lead to the possible overturning of verdicts later on. Criticism of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court also grew over its refusal to consider the question of whether CCTV should be allowed or not.
"A legal clarification would have been possible in a very short amount of time," said Angelika Lex, a combative lawyer from Munich who is representing the relatives of Theodoros Boulgaridis, a Greek man killed in the series of murders. "Then we wouldn't have to have this discussion about there not being enough seats."
The co-plaintiffs have other questions as well. Why, for example, is the defendant Carsten S. not being detained despite the fact that he is charged with being an accessory to murder in nine cases? "I hope that the court will now apply the full letter of the law to address the issue," Reinhard Schön, a lawyer representing co-plaintiffs, said. He also said it had been indefensible that the German Federal Court of Justice had lifted the arrest orders against three of the defendants. "I have a problem with this," he said, "namely the feeling that individual judges at the (federal court) are blind to the far-right threat."
Representatives of all the victims have stated that the co-plaintiffs are deeply concerned about right-wing extremist violence. They want to know more about the people who have destroyed lives and imposed deep burdens on others. Most of the families still haven't had a chance to properly deal with what has happened to them. They're demanding "maximum" clarification. "This is not just an issue of whether the defendants are guilty of having committed the crimes," said attorney Sebastian Scharmer. "We want to know how the 'National Socialist Underground' could even come to be? Who supported it. Who selected the victims of the crimes?"
The families of the deceased and those injured in the NSU attacks also want to finally be taken seriously for what they are: the victims of the gravest of crimes who had for years been subjected to "degradingly racist and amateurish investigations," Scharmer said. Both privately and publicly, these people have been "discredited and criminalized," added lawyer Lex.
When witnesses, clues and profiles began to suggest that the killings had been the product of a right-wing extremist series of attacks, the lawyer said, the investigators seemed to ignore that fact. "Even to this day, no one has apologized to our clients," she said, not a single government minister, nor a regional minister, nor a police president nor even the head of a single agency. This has led to "considerable loss of trust in Germany as a country that adheres to the rule of law," she added.
Despite the risk of playing into the accused's hands, lawyers for the families of the victims say their clients want to know if any, if not all, of the crimes could have been prevented had investigators and domestic intelligence agencies reacted with greater urgency when the NSU first became active, by taking the far-right threat seriously and responding accordingly.
According to the charges brought by federal prosecutors, the NSU consisted of just three, highly dangerous members. But the co-plaintiffs believe this is unlikely, citing the fact that investigations into a number of other suspected members are ongoing. There are indications, they maintain, that the cell had been helped by others while committing their crimes.
Questions about the NSU's Funding
"Were informants being paid and were these funds used to finance the NSU?" is another question the co-plaintiffs want answered. The term informants is a reference to members of far-right extremist groupings who may have had knowledge of the crimes of the NSU and also served as informants to the German government's domestic intelligence agencies.
"We also refute the claim, made in some quarters, that it is not the job of the court to examine investigative failure, nor the possibility that the network had further support in place," they argue.
Clearly, the Munich court has to ensure the case doesn't spiral out of control, they say. But they are convinced that it will prove impossible to shed any light on the role of the accused without looking into how the NSU's activities were financed.
According to Sebastian Scharmer, who is representing Gamze Kubasik, the daughter of Mehmet Kubasik, who was killed by the NSU in Dortmund in 2006, the co-plaintiffs "want to establish more than the information contained in the charges, even if this leads to conflict with the court."