Four years after Beate Zschaepe walked into a courtroom in Munich and exchanged smiles with her lawyers, a trial that has been a litmus test for Germany's stand against the neo-Nazi scene may soon come to an end.
Prosecutors Tuesday commenced closing arguments in the case being dubbed the country's biggest neo-Nazi murder trial, though Zschaepe is the only survivor of the three-member National Socialist Underground (NSU) gang accused of killing eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman. The belated discovery followed by a botched investigation process was severely criticized by members of the Turkish community and the government.
The case was muddled with allegations that German intelligence and security forces turned a blind eye to the gang up until their "accidental" discovery in 2011 and that the officials sought to destroy evidence once the gang's connections to informants from the far-right scene were revealed.
Zschaepe has been on trial since May 2013 for crimes committed by the gang, ranging from racially motivated murders to a bombing and a string of bank robberies between 2000 and 2007.
Addressing the Munich state court, prosecutor Herbert Diemer said that the trial confirmed the charges against Zschaepe and four co-defendants who are accused of aiding the NSU describing her as a co-founder and member of the group. Zschaepe, who previously maintained her silence throughout the proceedings, denied in her initial statement in 2015 that she was a founder of the gang or involved in the crimes, while admitting that she knew of the crimes of other gang members. On the other hand, Zschaepe, 42, has denied any involvement in the murders, blaming the murders on the two other NSU members, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Bohnhardt, who died in an apparent murder-suicide in 2011. She has also been accused of torching the apartment where she lived with Mundlos and Bohnhardt in the eastern Germany city of Zwickau. Diemer said the NSU wanted "a foreigner-free" country and acted in line with far-right ideology.
Throughout the lengthy legal process, the court heard 815 witnesses and 42 expert witnesses and ruled for the hearing of closing arguments last week but the hearing was adjourned to yesterday upon disagreement between defense lawyers and prosecutors on recording of the session. Prosecutors' arguments may take several hearings to complete and the court will hear the arguments of the plaintiffs and defense lawyers in a hearing scheduled for September. If convicted, Zschaepe will likely be sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders.
The NSU's crimes were only discovered after the deaths of Bohnhardt and Mundlos with a chilling video showing the crimes found in possession of the two men.
The discovery of the NSU shed light on how police, either deliberately or mistakenly, blamed domestic disputes in the Turkish community for the murders. Blunders on the part of authorities investigating the NSU or "coincidences" that led up to the destruction of critical evidence have also been piling up in the case since the gang's existence was made public. Critics of the case also claim police and intelligence services that had hired people from the neo-Nazi scene to serve as informants have tried to erase their connections to the NSU case. Despite its links to many gangs in Germany's neo-Nazi scene, the NSU apparently went unnoticed for years, from the late 1990s to 2011.
The two families of the murder victims recently sued Germany for damages over a series of mishaps in the case.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Carsten Ilius, a lawyer for plaintiffs, said they "didn't expect much" from the closing arguments though they expected Zschaepe to be sentenced to life. "Unfortunately, there isn't much about the background of the case. No words will be said about informants, nothing will be confessed," Ilius said. "There will be, to an extent, a fair verdict but a large amount of evidence was left out of the case."
Adile Şimşek, the wife of victim Enver Şimşek, told AA that she did not believe in a fair ruling and said Chancellor Angela Merkel did not keep her promise to families of victims. "She told us that everything will be revealed about the case but it did not," Şimşek said, referring to German authorities' negligence about the gang's activities. Seda Şimşek, a lawyer for the victims' families said that the court imposed a gag order on one of key documents regarding the case. "If Germany is a state of law, if they have nothing to hide, why did they make it confidential?" she said. Şimşek also claimed more people helped the NSU, but only five people appeared before the court.