NSU trial: German neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe sentenced to life

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Zschäpe and attorney in court

The principal defendant in the NSU trial, Beate Zschäpe, is convicted of murder on ten counts. Her defense wants to appeal to the verdict. The sentences against the co-defendants are milder – one is even released from custody.

André E., convicted in the NSU trial, is released from custody. At the end of the opinion of the court, the Munich Higher Regional Court on Wednesday reversed the arrest warrant against the neo-Nazi, who had been sentenced to only two and a half years in prison. The reason given was that the pre-trial detention was no longer proportionate. A group of right-wing extremists responded to the court’s decision with applause and cheers. The 38-year-old E. had previously been sentenced to two years and six months in prison – but not, as demanded by the federal prosecutor’s office, for aiding and abetting the murder, but for supporting a terrorist organization. He is said to have helped the NSU with the cover-up.

E., like the co-defendants Holger G. and Carsten S., could remain at large until the verdict is final, said a court spokesman. S. and G. had not been in custody for some time. The main defendants Beate Zschäpe and the NSU weapons procurer Ralf Wohlleben, on the other hand, remain in pre-trial detention.

After more than five years, the Higher Regional Court in Munich had pronounced the verdicts in the NSU trial on Wednesday. Zschäpe was sentenced to life imprisonment for ten counts of murder. Her lawyer Wolfgang Heer then announced that he would appeal. “Mrs. Zschäpe’s conviction for complicity in the murders and rape crimes committed by Böhnhardt and Mundlos cannot be justified. We will appeal against the verdict,” Heer announced during a break of the court session. The ruling would then have to be reviewed by the Federal Supreme Court.

Premature dismissal practically excluded

In the case of the main defendant Zschäpe, the Munich Higher Regional Court also determined the particular severity of the guilt – which means that early release from prison after 15 years is legally possible, but in practice almost impossible. The court did not order preventive detention following her imprisonment, as demanded by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

With the verdict, the court followed the request of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and sentenced Zschäpe as an accomplice to the murders and attacks of the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU). Zschäpe had lived underground with her friends Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt for almost 14 years. During this time, the two men murdered nine business owners of Turkish or Greek origin and a German policewoman, and committed two bomb attacks in Cologne with dozens of injured persons.

Although there is no evidence that Zschäpe was at any of the crime scenes, the prosecution had ascribed her a decisive role in the covering of the trio and argued that Zschäpe “knew everything, supported everything, and helped steer and effect it in her own way”. The court followed this reasoning in its judgment.

The Higher Regional Court sentenced the co-defendant Ralf Wohlleben to ten years imprisonment as a weapons procurer for the NSU. The court found him guilty of accessory to murder. His defense attorneys also want to have the verdict reviewed by the Federal High Court. This was announced by Nicole Schneiders after the verdict had been pronounced. The co-defendant Holger G. was sentenced to three years in prison. He had already admitted at the beginning of the trial that he had supported Zschäpe in her underground life. Among other things, he is said to have obtained false papers and a weapon. The court sentenced the co-defendant Carsten S. to three years juvenile sentence because he was still an adolescent at the time of the crime. He had confessed to handing over the pistol of the type “Ceska” to the NSU, with which Böhnhardt and Mundlos later shot nine people.

One of the longest processes of the post-war period

Zschäpe’s two defender teams had demanded the acquittal of their client from all murders and attacks: She was not an accomplice, a murderer or an assassin. Zschäpe herself had asserted in written submissions that she had always learned of the murders and attacks of her friends only afterwards.

“Please don’t judge me on behalf of something I neither wanted nor did,” she had appealed to the court in her personal closing remarks. The trial against 43-year-old Zschäpe and the co-defendants lasted five years and is one of the longest and most elaborate circumstantial trials in German post-war history.

The judgments against Zschäpe and her co-defendants brought many observers satisfaction and relief.

The uncovering of the terrorist organisation in November 2011 had triggered a political earthquake in Germany – because a right-wing extremist terrorist cell could live underground for years unharmed by the authorities and murder its way through the republic. For years, investigators had been following the wrong tracks and failed to appreciate the extreme right-wing background of the acts. Instead, close family members of the murder victims were treated as suspects and harassed. Subsequently, investigation committees of the Bundestag and several state parliaments were set up to clarify some blatant official mistakes.

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