MUNICH (AP) — A German court found the main defendant guilty on Wednesday in a string of neo-Nazi killings more than a decade ago — a high-profile trial that raised fresh questions about the treatment of migrants at a time when Germany is grappling with an unprecedented influx of refugees and surging support for a far-right party bent on keeping the country white.
The Munich court sentenced Beate Zschaepe, the only known survivor of the National Socialist Underground group, to life in prison in the killings of 10 people — most of them migrants — who were gunned down between 2000 and 2007. The group’s name, often shortened to NSU, alludes to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.
Zschaepe was also found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization, bomb attacks that injured dozens and several lesser crimes including a string of robberies. Four men were also found guilty of supporting the group in various ways and given prison terms of between 2.5 and 10 years.
While the verdict was widely welcomed by victims’ families as well as anti-racism campaigners and mainstream political parties, the court’s failure to investigate the secretive wider network of people sympathetic to the National Socialist Undergound group’s cause drew criticism.
The verdict “is a first and very important step,” said Gamze Kubasik, the daughter of Mehmet Kubasik, who was shot dead by Zschaepe’s two accomplices in the western city of Dortmund on April 4, 2006. “I just hope all other supporters of the NSU are found and convicted.”
Uli Grotsch, a lawmaker for the center-left Social Democratic Party who participated in a parliamentary investigation of the authorities’ handling of the case, said many questions remain unanswered.
“The relatives want to know why their father, brother or son had to die,” said Grotsch, adding that Zschaepe and her two deceased accomplices — Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt — must have had numerous supporters. “We’re dealing with a well-organized neo-Nazi network that is still operating in secret and we can’t rule out that a series of murders like that of the NSU can happen again at any time.”
Zschaepe was arrested in 2011, shortly after setting fire to the apartment she, Mundlos and Boehnhardt shared in the eastern town of Zwickau. Hours earlier Mundlos had killed Boehnhardt and then himself in what investigators believe was an attempt to evade arrest.
The trio had gone into hiding in 1998, resolving to kill people “for anti-Semitic or other racist motivations” in order to intimidate ethnic minorities and destabilize the German state, according to the Munich court’s presiding judge, Manfred Goetzl.
Although no evidence was found proving that Zschaepe had been physically present during the robberies and attacks, Goetzl said her contribution to the trio’s crimes during its 14 years on the run was “essential.”
In particular, he cited Zschaepe’s role in distributing a macabre video in which the National Socialist Underground claimed responsibility for the killings after her accomplices’ deaths. Featuring a cartoon “Pink Panther” character, the video contained pictures the men had taken as their victims lay dead or dying.
Eight of those killed were ethnic Turks, shaking the 3 million-strong Turkish community in Germany and prompting angry condemnation from Ankara.
Mehmet Daimaguler, a lawyer for the victims’ relatives, said that “for my clients it was important to understand why the state did not protect them.”
For years the country’s security agencies failed to consider a possible far-right motive behind the killings and bomb attacks, focusing instead on whether the victims had ties to organized crime — a line of investigation for which there was never any evidence.
“Here the question of an institutional racism arises,” said Daimaguler.
The myriad mistakes made by German authorities, as well as their use of paid far-right informants and shredding of documents related to the case after the neo-Nazi link came to light, have made the NSU case a byword for the German security agencies’ fraught approach to migrants.
Anti-migrant sentiment that underpinned the group’s ideology was particularly strong in eastern Germany during the early 1990s, when Mundlos, Boehnhardt and Zschaepe were in their late teens and early 20s. The period saw a string of attacks against migrants and the rise of far-right parties.
Anti-racism campaigners have drawn parallels between that era and the violence directed toward asylum-seekers in Germany in recent years, which has also seen the emergence of the far-right Alternative for Germany. The party came third in last year’s election after campaigning against immigration with posters of a pregnant white woman and the slogan: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”
The head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, warned Wednesday that the party’s success in elections has given far-right extremists a platform in parliament “and thereby new opportunities to undermine our democracy.”
Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said after the verdict that the National Socialist Underground’s crimes “should be a lesson and a task for us to fight far-right extremism in Germany with all means necessary.”
As Judge Goetzl read out the verdicts, a group of far-right activists in the audience clapped when one of those convicted, Andre Eminger, received a lower sentence than expected.
Eminger, who provided the National Socialist Underground with numerous identity documents and hired mobile homes they used to travel the country and commit their crimes, grinned at his supporters.
Hours later the court ordered Eminger, who was described by his lawyers as a committed national socialist, released while possible appeals are pending.