May 6 2013
Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Munich in memory of 10 alleged murder victims of a neo-Nazi cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU). A trial begins this week.
Saturday’s demonstrations were called for by an alliance of leftist groups in memory of the NSU’s alleged victims.
The right-wing extremist group is accused of killing 10 people – eight with Turkish heritage, one from Greece and a German policewoman – between 2000 and 2007. The group was only uncovered in 2011. The sole surviving alleged core member, a 38-year-old woman, and four alleged accomplices are facing trial. The case is scheduled to begin next Wednesday.
Organizers of the protest march and rally through Munich said there were up to 10,000 attendees, while a police spokesman put the figure at around 5,500. Both said the gathering had been peaceful.
The march went for about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) past a number of former Nazi buildings and a memorial to Munich’s Oktoberfest bombing of 1980. On September 26, 1980, a bomb exploded at the festival gates leaving 211 injured and 13 dead, including the bomber himself. The perpetrator was 21-year-old geology student Gundolf Wilfried Koehler, a member of a right-wing extremist group called the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann. The group had been banned shortly before the attack.
“We must have zero tolerance for neo-Nazis in this city,” said a survivor of Auschwitz, Esther Bejarano, in a message to the demonstration.
Foreign journalists granted access
On Friday, the German Constitutional Court ruled that Turkish journalists must be granted accreditation for the upcoming trial.
The court ordered the upper regional court (OLG) in Munich to reserve “a suitable number of seats for representatives of foreign media with particular consideration to the victims of the alleged crimes.”
Up until then, the OLG had resisted pressure to allow Turkish or Greek media into the court. There were 50 available places for reporters, and these were allocated on a “first come, first served” basis. No Turkish or Greek media outlets were among the first 50 to apply.
Several politicians, most recently Turkish President Abdullah Gül, had called for this situation to change – given a majority of the victims were of Turkish origin – along with Turkish and German news organizations, journalists’ unions like the DJV and other groups.
The federal government had voiced its “hopes” for a “sensitive” solution to the situation, albeit simultaneously stressing that the decision must lie with the independent German judiciary.
By Damien McElroy and agencies
Police erected security barriers in anticipation of possible protests by far-right extremist groups, while hundreds of reporters queued outside the Munich courthouse in the hope of gaining one of the few available seats in the packed courtroom for the start of a trial scheduled to last for more than a year.
The chance discovery of the gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which had gone undetected for more than a decade, has forced Germany to acknowledge it has a more militant and dangerous neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought.
The main defendant is Beate Zschaepe, 38, accused by prosecutor of complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007. If convicted she faces life imprisonment.
Zschaepe is also accused of involvement in at least two bombings and 15 bank robberies carried out by her accomplices Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt, who died in an apparent murder-suicide in November 2011. In a break with standard practice the court allowed Zschaepe’s face to be filmed as she entered the court in a dark suit, her arms folded, before turning her back to the cameras.
Four male defendants are accused of assisting the self-styled National Socialist Underground in various ways:
– Ralf Wohlleben, 38, and Carsten Schultze, 33, are accused of being accessories to murder in the killing of the nine men. Prosecutors allege that they supplied the trio with the weapons and silencers used in the killings.
– Andre Eminger, 33, is accused of being an accessory in two of the bank robberies and in the 2004 nail bombing in Cologne’s old town that injured 22 people, four of them seriously. He is also accused of two counts of supporting a terrorist organization.
– Holger Gerlach, 39, is accused of three counts of supporting a terrorist organization.
Like Zschaepe, the co-defendants were known to German authorities before the existence of the self-styled National Socialist Underground came to light. Many in Germany have asked how the country’s well-funded security services, with their network of informants in the far-right scene, could have overlooked the group’s existence for so long. For years, police suspected the immigrant victims of being involved with foreign gangs linked to gambling and drugs.
Families of those killed and survivors of the bomb attacks in particular have said they are hoping not just for justice, but answers to questions such as how the group chose its victims, none of whom were high-profile targets.
One of Zschaepe’s three lawyers has claimed that his client faces “execution by media.”
Wolfgang Stahl told public broadcaster SWR last week that Zschaepe was being portrayed as “evil incarnate, a murderer, a member of a murder gang, a Nazi bride or a Nazi killer” in a way that could prejudice the trial judges.
Her lawyers have said she will remain silent during the lengthy trial. Under German law Zschaepe won’t have to make a plea until the end, though her lawyers have said they will contest the prosecution charges.