German neo-Nazi gang leader gets life for killing 10, most of them migrants
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German neo-Nazi gang leader gets life for killing 10, most of them migrants

Victims were gunned down in series of attacks that shocked country; many militant neo-Nazis feared still in hiding

Defendant Beate Zschaepe (L) and her lawyer Mathias Grasel wait in a courtroom before her sentencing as the only surviving member of neo-Nazi cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) behind a string of racist murders, in Munich, Germany, July 11, 2018 (AFP PHOTO/POOL/MICHAELA REHLE)
Defendant Beate Zschaepe (L) and her lawyer Mathias Grasel wait in a courtroom before her sentencing as the only surviving member of neo-Nazi cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) behind a string of racist murders, in Munich, Germany, July 11, 2018 (AFP PHOTO/POOL/MICHAELA REHLE)

A Munich court has found the main defendant in a high-profile neo-Nazi trial guilty of murder over the killing of 10 people — most of them migrants — gunned down between 2000 and 2007 in a case that shocked Germany.

Judges on Wednesday sentenced Beate Zschaepe to life in prison for murder, membership in a terrorist organization, bomb attacks that injured dozens and several lesser crimes including a string of robberies. Four men were found guilty of supporting the group in various ways and sentenced to prison terms of between 2½ and 10 years.

Zschaepe, 43, was found guilty due to her involvement in the deadly shootings of nine Turkish and Greek-born immigrants and a German policewoman carried out by a clandestine trio known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Police say the NSU’s two male members — Zschaepe’s former lovers Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt — pulled the trigger in their killing spree from 2000 to 2007, before they died in an apparent suicide pact following a bungled bank heist in 2011.

Protesters hold up signs with pictures of the victims of neo-Nazi cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) before the sentencing of Beate Zschaepe, the only surviving member of the NSU behind a string of racist murders, in Munich, Germany, July 11, 2018 (AFP PHOTO/GUENTER SCHIFFMANN)

Prosecutors accuse Zschaepe of being an active NSU member who helped the two men by plotting the killings and two bomb attacks, as well as handling finances and providing a safe haven in their shared home.

It was Zschaepe who revealed, after the two Uwes died, the scope of the NSU’s bloody crimes to a shocked German public, by releasing a macabre confession video set to a Pink Panther cartoon theme, which mocked the victims and police.

It was only then that Germany woke up to the fact that the series of nationwide killings, long blamed by police on immigrant crime gangs, had in fact been committed by organised fascists from the country’s formerly communist east.

The case deeply shocked a nation that has struggled to atone for its dark Nazi past and which had associated terrorism mainly with far-left and Islamist militants, not right-wing extremists.

Zschaepe has insisted she only learnt of the murders after they were committed. She has admitted only to helping plot some of the NSU’s 15 bank robberies and setting fire to their shared home after the two men died.

The woman who grew up in the extremist skinhead subculture of post-reunification east Germany, also told the court that its racist ideology has “no meaning for me anymore.”

Shredded files

The Munich court case, which began in May 2013, will end on its 438th day after hearing some 800 witnesses and experts, with 93 bereaved relatives as co-plaintiffs.

The files from the mega-trial now top 300,000 pages, but the victims’ relatives say many questions remain unanswered, including how the killers chose their victims.

In 2012, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged that Germany would “do everything we can to clear up the murders and uncover the accomplices and backers and bring all perpetrators to justice”.

The same year then head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency, Heinz Fromm, was forced to resign when it emerged his service had shredded files related to the NSU suspects.

Protesters hold a banner reading “Dissolve the NSU complex” near the regional court in Munich before the sentencing of Beate Zschaepe, the only surviving member of the neo-Nazi cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) behind a string of racist murders, in Munich, Germany, July 11, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / GUENTER SCHIFFMANN)

Several federal and state parliamentary committees later spent years trying to understand how the killers went undetected for so long, and the murky role of paid undercover informants inside the far-right subculture.

While the Munich trial has focused on the NSU “trio”, the chairman of the last parliamentary inquest, Uli Groetsch, said it was clear that the three were “supported by a broad network of neo-Nazis.”

On the eve of the verdict, victims’ relatives voiced their belief that many militant Nazis remain in hiding.

“I’m 100 percent sure that there are still accomplices out there,” said Abdulkerim Simsek, the son of the first NSU murder victim, Enver Simsek.

Simsek claimed that the BfV was still keeping some files under lock and key, charging that “there are obviously quite a few things that are being covered up.”

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