A major trial against the eight far-right extremists known as the Freital Group began in Dresden on Tuesday. The seven men and one woman, aged between 19 and 38, face a marathon 62 days in court as federal prosecutors seek to lay out a complex case showing that the organization amounted to a terrorist cell.
The group, based in the small Saxony town of Freital, is accused of carrying out five separate attacks beginning in summer 2015 and planning more.
The targets of the attacks included several refugee homes, the offices of left-wing politicians and a car belonging to a local Left party leader. Though no one was killed, the terror charges - and the fact that federal rather than state prosecutors are involved - makes this one of the most significant trials in recent German history and could act as a precedent for other such trials.
Long charge sheet
The charges include counts of attempted murder, grievous bodily harm, causing an explosion and property damage, though not all members are accused of each act. Only two people were injured in the incidents, though prosecutors say that deaths were only avoided because people were able to get to safety before the homemade explosives went off.
In 2015, the leaders of the group, 27-year-old Timo S. and 25-year-old Patrick F., founded the so-called citizens' defense group, which quickly began planning violent attacks.
"The aim of this group was to carry out bomb attacks on asylum-seeker shelters, as well as on the apartments, offices and vehicles of those with differing political views," federal prosecutors said in a statement released in November 2016. "In this way the accused wanted to create a climate of fear and repression."
The Freital Group (which also called itself Citizens Defense FTL/360) stockpiled fireworks - bought in the Czech Republic and illegal in Germany - that members used to manufacture pipe bombs in September 2015.
That month, Patrick F. and one other unidentified member of the group attached one of these homemade explosives to the outside of a kitchen window of a local refugee shelter and detonated it. According to the prosecutor's statement, the only reason the eight people living there survived was because they weren't in the kitchen when the bomb exploded.
The following month, prosecutors say, the entire group attacked an "alternative living project" in Dresden, throwing cobblestones and small homemade explosives through the windows, injuring one of the inhabitants. Another bomb attack on a residence for asylum applicants followed that month, leaving one person with facial injuries from broken glass as another homemade bomb went off.
'No confidence' in Saxony justice
For Matthias Quent, director of the Thuringia-based Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, the most significant aspect of the case is the fact that it is being taken so seriously by the authorities.
"It's a bit of a test case for the federal prosecutors to work with a terrorist charge," Quent said. "For me, it's an accurate charge because the aim of the perpetrators was to spread fear. The fact that it was aimed not at the state, but against individual groups - refugees and those who helped refugees - diminishes neither the gravity of the crime nor the message it is sending out."
This is likely to be the central issue in the trial, as the defense attorneys aren't denying the crimes, only their categorization as terrorism. For Quent, this categorization is vital - not least because it represents a reaction by the authorities to the botched investigations into the murders carried out by the National Socialist Underground: a series of ten racist killings committed over the course of a decade. "For a long time, they didn't see this - now they are more alert, and see terrorism even when it is not primarily directed at the state, but against immigrants," he said.
Quent even called the federal prosecutors' decision to take the case as a "vote of no confidence" in their state counterparts and the local judiciary in Saxony - "because at least three police officers are under suspicion of at least having contact with the group."
All this may only be the tip of the iceberg. "Very few of the perpetrators of attacks on asylum-seekers' homes are found and prosecuted," Quent said.
Federal police statistics show that there were 921 attacks on asylum shelters in Germany in 2016, with suspects identified in only about 20 percent of the cases. "We just don't know who is behind them - whether they're individual perpetrators or organized structures," Quent said, "but experience suggests that it is often very similar structures to those standing in court in Freital."