It took a five-year-long trial and more than 600 witnesses, but the main defendant in a neo-Nazi case that rocked Germany was found guilty Wednesday of 10 murders and sentenced to life in prison.
Beate Zschäpe, now 43, belonged to a neo-Nazi cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU) that killed 10 people between 2000 and 2007 in a series of racially motivated murders in Germany. Eight of the victims were Turkish, one was Greek, and one was a German police officer. Authorities originally thought the murders of the Turkish men were the work of gangs in the German-Turkish community, but the aftermath of a 2011 bank robbery helped lead them to clues implicating the NSU. The group was also responsible for two bomb attacks that injured 23 people, as well as a number of bank robberies.
In November 2011, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos robbed a bank in Eisenach, Germany. Police quickly closed in on them, but by the time the officers reached their white camper van, the two men were dead in what appeared to be a murder-suicide. Their deaths prompted Zschäpe to set fire to their apartment in the town of Zwickau and then turn herself in to the police, leading to the eventual unraveling of the truth behind the earlier murders.
Although the apartment was badly damaged in the fire, police found a DVD that played off the Pink Panther cartoon, showing the attack sites and gory photos of victims. Zschäpe is also believed to have delivered the same DVD to a number of media outlets around the same time.
In Germany, as details about the murders emerged, there was widespread outrage that a neo-Nazi group could have existed for so long, carrying out violent attacks, mainly on Turkish men, without police intervention.
In 2012, Heinz Fromm, then chief of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, resigned after it was revealed that his office had shredded a number of documents related to the cases. A parliamentary inquiry also blamed bias for the lack of progress, saying investigators failed to look into neo-Nazis as possible culprits for the murders that mainly targeted immigrants, instead narrowing their focus to members of the victims' own communities.
At a news conference this week, Gamze Kubasik, whose father Mehmet Kubasik was killed by the group in 2006, said, “The NSU killed my father, but the investigators destroyed his honor.”
Zschäpe rarely spoke over the course of the trial, which began in 2013. But in 2015, she wrote a lengthy statement that her lawyer read in court, claiming she did not participate in or know about the killings. She did, however, acknowledge feeling “morally guilty” that she did not do more to stop the attacks.
Four other people who assisted the group over the years were also sentenced this week, though each of them will serve less than 10 years in prison.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the case “should be a lesson and a task for us to fight far-right extremism in Germany with all means necessary.”
But not everyone was satisfied that the court ruling really closes the case. One German lawmaker, Uli Grotsch, said other NSU supporters could still be at large.
“We’re dealing with a well-organized neo-Nazi network that is still operating in secret, and we can’t rule out that a series of murders like that of the NSU can happen again at any time,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.