BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — One of the biggest trials in modern German history ends Wednesday when the court hands a verdict to the only surviving member of a neo-Nazi cell behind a string of racist murders.
Beate Zschaepe, 43, is accused of complicity in 10 deadly shootings of mostly Turkish and Greek-born immigrants carried out by clandestine trio the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
The NSU’s two gunmen — Zschaepe’s former lovers Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt — also shot dead a German policewoman during their 2000-07 killing spree before they died in an apparent suicide pact in 2011.
After their deaths following a bungled bank heist, Zschaepe revealed to a shocked German public the scope of the NSU’s crimes with a macabre confession video, set to a Pink Panther cartoon theme, which she mailed to media and Muslim groups.
It was only then that Germany awoke to the news that the nationwide killings, long blamed by police on immigrant crime gangs, had in fact been committed by organized fascists from Germany’s formerly communist east.
The case deeply shocked Germany, which has struggled to atone for its dark Nazi past and which had associated terrorism mainly with far-left and Islamist militants, not rightwing thugs.
Prosecutors have demanded the maximum punishment for Zschaepe — a life term that translates to 15 years behind bars but can be extended if she is deemed an ongoing threat to society.
Also in the dock and facing up to 12 years jail are four men accused of having supported the NSU by providing the murder weapon, cash, identity papers and logistical aid during their years in hiding.
The co-accused are Ralf Wohlleben, a former member of the far-right NPD party, unrepentant neo-Nazi Andre E. and two former supporters-turned-witnesses, Holger G. and Carsten S.
‘Please don’t judge me’
The mammoth Munich court case, which began in May 2013, will end on its 438th day after hearing some 750 witnesses and over 50 experts, with 93 bereaved relatives as co-plaintiffs.
It was Germany’s biggest court case since the 1960s Auschwitz trials against the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and the 1970s proceedings against the leftwing extremist Baader-Meinhof gang.
Prosecutors have accused Zschaepe of being an active NSU member who helped the two men by covering their tracks, handling finances and providing a safe haven in their shared home.
She has admitted only to lesser crimes, such as helping plot some of their 15 bank robberies, and setting fire to their shared home after the two men died.
Zschaepe, who refused to even state her name for most of the trial, broke her silence later on to declare her innocence, a claim she repeated in brief comments last week.
“Please don’t judge me for something that I neither wanted nor did,” she asked presiding judge Manfred Goetzl.
She has insisted she was an unwilling bystander horrified by the bloody crimes, including two bomb attacks, and not the strong-willed, active participant described by prosecutors.
Zschaepe, who grew up in the extremist skinhead subculture of post-reunification east Germany, has also said its racist ideology has “no meaning for me anymore.”
‘Network of neo-Nazis’
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 who to attack.
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, Heinz Fromm — who at the time headed Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency — was forced to resign when it emerged his service had shredded files related to the NSU suspects.
Several federal and state parliamentary committees have since spent years trying to understand how the killers went undetected for so long — and looked into the murky role of paid undercover informants inside the right-wing extremist subculture.
In one killing, it turned out a paid state informant had been at the scene of the crime, an internet cafe in Kassel, but later claimed he had neither heard the shots nor noticed the bleeding victim on the floor.
The Munich trial has focused solely on the NSU “trio,” but 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.”