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.
Pursuing the Case against the Father
Professor Jan Kizilhan, an ethnologist and psychologist from the southwestern city of Freiburg, was called to testify as an expert witness. "In archaic collectives, it is not uncommon to see the person who contributes the least to the community chosen for such deeds," he explained. Of the five convicted siblings, Osman is the only one without vocational training and without his own family.
If someone chose Osman to be the killer, who was it? Sirin organized the hunt for her sister. But none of the Özmen children was allowed to make any decisions without the father's approval, according to what people familiar with the family told investigators.
Neighbors describe the father, an unskilled laborer with diabetes, as warm-hearted and helpful. They say that the family participated in neighborhood parties and barbecues. The police found a Walther P 99 pistol under the father's mattress, and a revolver in his shed.
The public prosecutor's office recognized early on that it would be difficult to prove that Fendi Özmen was involved in his daughter's murder. Although he is still listed as a defendant, his trial was separated from that of his children. Prosecutors hoped that this would enable them to learn more about him.
There are details from witness testimony and files, recordings of telephone conversations and statements made during interrogations that contradict the picture of the completely uninvolved father.
In the summer before running away, Arzu overheard a conversation between her father and her brother Osman, in which they said that the best solution would be to bury her in the woods and report her as missing. That was what she later told her boyfriend Alexander.
'The Cops Are in Front of the House'
Furthermore, although Sirin claimed she was solely responsible for the search for Arzu, it emerged that the father, Fendi, had repeatedly asked a Kurdish "dispute mediator" in nearby Paderborn to help find Arzu.
The phone records for all of the mobile phones used by the Özmen family show that calls were made with the father's phone on the night of the murder. When police officers rang his doorbell at 2:40 a.m., Arzu was presumably still alive. Fendi told them that his children were at a party.
Recorded phone conversations with relatives revealed the family's concerns after the crime had been committed. Fendi, one relative said, could not forget that his children had let the boy live. They were referring to Arzu's German boyfriend, Alexander. According to another conversation, relatives had told Fendi to leave the girl alone, and that he had ruined his family. One relative said that he had gone to see Fendi and told him that he should not allow Arzu to be killed.
If this were the case, why didn't Fendi Özmen restrain his children? On the night of the murder, the police officers asked him to appeal to his sons and daughter not to harm Arzu. Fendi sent four text messages, including three to Sirin with unknown content, and the following message to his eldest son Kirer, at 5:38 a.m.: "The cops are in front of the house."
When the question arose as to what the suitable mourning period for Arzu should be, Fendi Özmen allegedly said that he didn't want a mourning period at all. According to recorded telephone conversations among relatives, he said after her death: "I fuck her blood."
An email Elvis, the youngest, sent to Arzu two days before her death reveals how much pressure the father must been under after his daughter had run away from home: "My father doesn't even know what to do anymore. Everyone knows that one of Fendi's daughters has run away. That's why none of us dares go to a wedding anymore, or anyplace, for that matter."
'I Just Sit, Cry'
Elvis is the only one of Özmen siblings who did not testify in court -- presumably so that he wouldn't do any damage to the family's case. The 21-year-old is reportedly not the brightest. In pretrial detention, Elvis confided in K., a fellow Yazidi inmate.
Elvis had told him that the family had even received calls from Turkey, from people who said that the issue with Arzu had to be resolved, K. told investigators. When it emerged that Arzu was at her boyfriend's apartment on the evening of her abduction, the father allegedly said, while holding a gun in his hand, that he would now resolve the matter. According to Elvis, the siblings and the mother tried to deter him, prompting the father to say: Then you'll have to do it. Elvis also told K. that the father had told his children not to bring Arzu into his house, because he didn't want to see her. That was when the five siblings allegedly left the father's house.
Statements by fellow inmates are generally taken with a grain of salt in trials. It isn't uncommon for inmates to make up stories to secure better conditions in prison. Nevertheless, the investigators believed that K.'s statement was credible. But then K. retracted everything in court, saying that he had made it all up.
In the trial, the mother and the father invoked their right to refuse to give evidence. They are still not talking. When Adle, the 46-year-old mother, opened her front door, all she could do was throw her arms in the air and wail: "Everything kaput." Her children would not go to heaven, she said, and they would become stone in the sea instead. "Everything kaput. I just sit, cry." Then she closed the door.
On the second day of the trial, Sirin's best friend Bea B., 28, took the witness stand. When she saw Bea, Sirin began to weep. "Sirin loves her family. She has always respected what was expected of her," Bea said.
'As Free as You Are'
In the evening, sitting in her kitchen where she often sat with Sirin, Bea says more about her friend. She says that the two women did something together almost every day in the last six years: jogging, biking, drinking coffee. "When her father called, she would always jump up right away," says Bea. Then she talks about Sirin's role in the family. "She wasn't the boss, but she took care of a lot of things. She helped pay for her brothers' weddings, and she bought things for her younger siblings, like clothes and athletic shoes." Bea begins to weep.
Bea set up an account for Sirin so that she could keep some money for herself. "I think it was her ticket to freedom. She once said: 'I would love to be as free as you are. If I ever left, I'd have to go very far away.'"
Sirin's father also beat her, says Bea. "'They don't take no for an answer,' she once said. 'I always have to be on the ball.'" According to Bea, Sirin dreamed of having a house and children. "She always hoped that she would find a Yazidi and fall in love with him." She seemed to have achieved her goal last summer, but then it turned out that the man had another girlfriend. "It was a bitter disappointment for Sirin."
Bea seems thoughtful for a moment, as she describes how all the Özmen siblings tried to gain their freedom. "I think she hoped that Kirer would get his way and marry a German woman, and that she would gain at least some freedom as a result." But Kirer married a cousin instead. He is now divorced.
There are people in Detmold who say that hardly anyone ought to understand Arzu's situation better than Sirin. They say that she once had a German boyfriend, whom she met secretly on weekends, and that she almost went abroad with him. Bea doesn't want to confirm this story, but she says: "Sirin always chose her family."
Expert Kizilhan says: "It's conspicuous that the older children, in particular, try very hard to live according to the values and norms of their parents, even though they don't believe in them. They want to protect their mother and father, who have already suffered so much as a result of having been persecuted and having fled their country. In the end, this means that they deny themselves, which leads to serious emotional conflicts."
'We Will Not Give Up Our Religion'
Could it be that Sirin couldn't abide the fact that her little sister had dared to do what she had lacked the courage to do?
On each day of the trial, Erkrem Deniz sat on the visitors' bench, wearing a dark suit. He is a peshimam, or Yazidi scholar. He married Kirer and Kemal. "This deed was an accident, a tragic occurrence," he says, pointing out that the religion condemns crimes of this nature. Kizilhan agrees. When Deniz is asked what he would do if his daughter had a German boyfriend, the cleric says: "Our life is often not easy. I would explain to her what it means for our religion." Then, with a pleasant smile, he adds: "They were familiar with our rules when they granted us asylum. Now more and more people say that we cannot live like that. But we will not give up our religion."
SPIEGEL attempted to contact Fendi Özmen to learn his thoughts on the matter. His attorney, Wilfried Ewers, wrote back: "I am appalled by the questions in your email. Have you ever thought about what an enormous calamity has befallen this family?"
Befallen? The attorney, quoting an article in a local newspaper, wrote: "Mr. Fendi Özmen said the following, which is still true today: There was no order to murder anyone. My daughter was a part of me, a part of my heart! How could I have wanted something to happen to her?"
"I have nothing to add to that," Ewers wrote.
The verdict against the Özmen siblings can still be appealed. Kemal's defense lawyer, Detlev Otto Binder, acknowledged: "The court handed down a nuanced verdict and, in doing so, acted with sound judgment." So far, only the attorneys of Kirer and Osman plan to file appeals. The public prosecutor's office intends to review the written verdict. It had also argued for life sentences for Sirin and Kirer, as well as longer prison terms for the other brothers.
The investigators and the public prosecutor's office are frustrated. When Chief Prosecutor Michael Kempkes separated the case against the father, he had hoped "to obtain new evidence against him." He had expected one of the defendants to open up and talk about the role the father played in the crime. But he was disappointed.
Fendi and Adle Özmen never appeared once in the courtroom, at the trial that put five of their children in prison for having murdered a sixth child. "It is difficult to find hard, prosecutable facts against the father," says Chief Prosecutor Kempkes.