Neo-Nazi NSU member Beate Zschäpe found guilty of murder, sentenced to life in prison

The surviving member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), Beate Zschäpe, has been found guilty of 10 counts of murder. The trial was one of the biggest in postwar German history.

Beate Zschäpe, member of the neo-Nazi terrorist group the National Socialist Underground (NSU), was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for the murder of ten people between 2000 and 2007, as well as her part in two bombings, and several robberies and attempted murders. She was also found guilty of membership in and the foundation of a terrorist organization.

The judge Manfred Götzl also attributed Zschäpe with serious culpability, which means the 43-year-old is likely to serve more than the minimum of 15 years. 

Ralf Wohlleben, who was found to have provided the gun with which nine of the murders were carried out, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two other accomplices, Holger G. and Carsten S., were sentenced to three years in prison each for helping a terrorist organization and nine counts of accessory to murder, while a third man, Andre E., was sentenced to two years and six months for helping the group. Andre E. was released, having already served his prison time during the trial.

Reporting from inside the packed court in Munich, where some people had queued overnight to get in, DW correspondent Hans Pfeifer said many neo-Nazis had made it into the courtroom and cheered loudly when Andre E. was released. Outside, DW correspondent Isil Nergiz said many people observed a minute's silence for the NSU's victims before the verdict was read.

Zschäpe was smiling as she entered the courtroom just after 9:40 a.m., and "tried to look unmoved" as she faced the cameras. He added that the defendant sat "almost motionless" as the judge read the reasoning behind the court's verdict.

The judge said the three members of the NSU had resolved to carry out "ideologically-motivated attacks" and kill foreign citizens, and had planned the murders together. He added that Zschäpe had played a "special role" in creating a "harmless legend" for the outside world, while the two male members of the group, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, now dead, had carried out the attacks.

The judge emphasized that the NSU's attacks could only have succeeded if all three members had planned them together, rejecting Zschäpe's defense that she had not committed any of the killings herself and had only found out about them afterwards.

Zschäpe's attorney Wolfgang Heer said afterwards that his client would lodge an appeal, calling the conviction "legally flawed." "The court reasoning is extremely thin," he said. "The court is very clearly flouting the unambiguous rulings of the Federal Court of Justice on complicity." 

Read more: Opinion: NSU trial underlines German state failures

Questions unanswered

The Munich state court ruling marks the end of one of the most important trials in Germany's postwar history. It was also one of the most complex, covering five years — more than 430 trial days — and featuring the testimonies of around 600 witnesses. Nine of the NSU's victims were of immigrant background; the tenth was a police officer.

Almost as soon as the verdict was released, a number of community organizations, political parties and lawyers released statements saying the verdict should not be the conclusion of the NSU case and calling for more investigations into Germany's neo-Nazi terrorist network. 

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Chancellor Angela Merkel promised in 2012 that there would be a "gapless" investigation into what has since become known as the "NSU complex," and there have been 13 separate parliamentary inquiries at both federal and state levels, but they have been hampered by official obstacles, as domestic intelligence agencies destroyed files and protected paid informants in the neo-Nazi scene.

"Angela Merkel and many others promised the victims a complete investigation. That promise was broken," said Gökay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish community organization TGD, in a statement.

"The people who are dead are dead because of the neo-Nazis' hate and racism," Mehmet Daimagüler, an attorney who represented two of the victims' relatives in the trial, told DW last week. "But they're also dead because of a racist investigation. They're dead because the state, in the form of the intelligence agencies, helped to develop this movement, supported it financially, gave it legal protection. Without thinking of the consequences."

The socialist Left party said the verdict had failed to shed light on the NSU network. Left party MP Petra Pau blamed Merkel for allowing herself to be "driven into lying" after her 2012 promises "by interior ministers, federal and state authorities, and especially the domestic intelligence agencies." "And I have to say she let it happen," said Pau. "I have not heard anything else from her since then and not seen any efforts at all at breaking through the investigation blockade set up by the authorities."

But Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) praised the efforts of both the judge and state prosecutors and defended the government's investigations into the case.

"The trial was only part of the efforts towards a thorough investigation that Angela Merkel announced in 2012," said Armin Schuster, CDU representative in the Bundestag's domestic policy committee. "Questions remain open after the verdict that are especially important for the victims and their relatives: Why were these specific people killed or injured by explosives? Who chose them to be victims of murder and bombings? Who may have helped Böhnhardt and Mundlos at the crime scenes?"

Barbara John, government ombudswoman for the relatives of the NSU victims, also defended Merkel. "Even the chancellor is not powerful enough to look into what the public servants are doing all day long," she told DW. "And when we look at what was happening there, you will see that change has to come out of these groups themselves. It is their obligation now to see why this could happen and why they could not prevent it."

Read more:The NSU crime scenes

Trusting the authorities

The trial took place amid persistent suspicion about the failures of German security forces to capture the NSU while it was active, despite evidence that its existence was well-known in neo-Nazi circles. Observers have also accused the police who originally investigated the murders of institutional racism for ruling out neo-Nazi motives at an early stage.

For several years, detectives went down blind alleys as they worked on the assumption that the killings were related to Turkish organized crime. Police were also criticized for labeling the killings as "kebab murders" at the time.

Abdulkerim Simsek, whose father Enver was shot dead by the NSU in 2000, told DW on Tuesday: "First my mother was accused, then my uncle, then everyone around us was constantly under investigation. That went on for eleven years. My father wasn't treated like he was the victim; instead he got the blame. It was the whole of the media. Whether it was the so-called 'kebab murders' of Turkish people or drug offenses. The press always said my father was to blame. And that's how we felt."

Ahead of the verdict, Sofuoglu said that the Turkish community's trust in the security forces was "deeply shaken." He accused state prosecutors of sticking rigidly to the theory that the three members of the NSU had worked in isolation. 

The NSU was only discovered on November 4, 2011, after the bodies of Böhnhardt and Mundlos were found in a burned-out motorhome following a failed bank robbery in Eisenach, in an apparent murder-suicide pact. Zschäpe turned herself in to police four days later, but not before setting fire to the trio's shared apartment in Zwickau, destroying evidence. She was also found guilty on Wednesday of arson.

Prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Zschäpe and prison terms of three to 12 years for the four people accused of helping the group. Her own attorneys had called for her release, arguing that she had not been an accessory to the crimes and pointing out that there was no evidence she was present at any of the murders.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

10 victims, 10 tragedies

Nine of the 10 victims were of foreign heritage, but they had all made Germany their home when they were killed. The 10th victim was a German police officer. Every one of them was shot in cold blood.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Enver Simsek

On September 9, 2000, the florist Enver Simsek, pictured with his wife, was shot eight times. The 38-year-old father of two sold flowers near a small parking lot in the southern city of Nuremberg. Simsek, who migrated from Turkey to Germany in 1986, is believed to be the first murder victim in the NSU series of racially motivated killings.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Abdurrahim Ozudogru

Also in Nuremberg, Turkish-born tailor Abdurrahim Ozudogru was shot on June 13, 2001 in his alteration shop. He was 49 years old with a daughter who was 19 at the time of his murder.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Suleyman Taskopru

Later that month, on June 27, 2001 Suleyman Taskopru was shot dead in his father's fruit and vegetable shop in Hamburg. He was 31 years old and had a three-year-old daughter.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Habil Kilic

On August 29 of the same year, 38-year-old Habil Kilic, who was also a fruit and vegetable grocer, was killed in his shop in Munich. Like Taskopru, he was shot in the head. His wife and his 12-year-old daughter later left Germany.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Mehmet Turgut

Mehmet Turgut lived in Hamburg, but was visiting a friend in the eastern German city of Rostock and helping out at a Doner kebab fast food restaurant when he was shot on February 25, 2004. He was killed by three bullets to the head.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Ismail Yasar

Ismail Yasar was shot five times in his doner kebab restaurant in Nuremberg on June 9, 2005. A customer found him behind the counter. The 50-year-old had three children.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Theodoros Boulgarides

Just a few days later, on June 15, 2005, Theodoros Boulgarides was shot dead in Munich in his lock and key service shop. He was the only victim with Greek heritage. The 41-year-old father of two was the NSU's seventh murder victim.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Mehmet Kubasik

On a busy street at noon on April 4, 2006 in the western city of Dortmund, Turkish-born Mehmet Kubasik was killed by several shots to the head in his small convenience store. The 39-year-old left behind a wife and three children.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Halit Yozgat

In Kassel on April 6, 2006, Halit Yozgat was also shot in the head. He was killed in the internet cafe he ran with his father. Twenty-one years old, Turkish-born but with a German passport, Yozgat was taking night school classes to graduate from high school.

The victims of the neo-Nazi NSU murder spree

Michele Kiesewetter

Michele Kiesewetter, a 22-year-old police officer, was shot dead on April 25, 2007 in the southwestern city of Heilbronn. She was the NSU's 10th and final murder victim.