Emotions ran high as Germany's biggest terrorism trial in decades got underway Monday in Munich. The hearing is on the murders of 10 people who were the victims of a nearly decadelong neo-Nazi terror campaign against the Turkish community there.
A group of Turkish immigrants scuffled with German security forces, trying to get into the courthouse to see the trial up close. They and many others among the 3 million people of Turkish descent who live in Germany are angry, saying the murders and aftermath highlight prevalent racism not just in society but in the government. They want to know why German authorities failed to uncover — let alone stop — the terror campaign against them.
Seventy-seven relatives of the victims are co-plaintiffs alongside the government. They are expected to be in the courtroom on and off during the trial, which could last for years. More than 600 witnesses are scheduled to be called.
The five defendants are appearing in public for the first time since their arrest more than a year ago. At least one of the four male defendants pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his face to avoid the cameras.
The main defendant — Beate Tschaepe, 38 — entered the courtroom with a smug expression and her arms crossed. She is believed to be the last surviving member of the National Socialist Underground, which is the alleged terrorist cell suspected of carrying out the murders. The other four defendants are accused of helping the NSU:
— Ralf Wohlleben, 38, and Carsten Schultze, 33, are accused of being accessories to murder in the killing of the nine men. (The 10th victim was a German policewoman). Prosecutors allege that they supplied Tschaepe and two other members — who later killed themselves — with the weapons and silencers used in the murders.
— Andre Eminger, 33, is accused of helping in two bank robberies and in a 2001 bombing in Cologne's old town. 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.
Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, whose reporter is one of the few in the courtroom, wrote that the proceeding was quickly halted when defense attorneys sought the removal of the lead judge. They accused him of bias because the defense team was searched for weapons before they entered, while the prosecution and others were not.
The trial resumed a half-hour later, after the motion was apparently dismissed.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Germany, the biggest terrorism trial in decades is set to begin today. The case centers on a 38-year-old woman, the only surviving member of a right-wing extremist group called the National Socialist Underground, or NSU. The group is accused of killing 10 people, most of them of Turkish descent. Now, although the families of the victims fear the trial will drag on for years, they hope it will shine light on the racism they believe is still prevalent in German society. In Berlin, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following this story, and she prepared this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)
ISMAIL YOZGAT: (crying) (Foreign language spoken)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Ismail Yozgat weeps as he describes the murder of his only son to the German president during a recent meeting filmed by public broadcaster ARD. Twenty-one-year-old Halit Yozgat was fatally shot seven years ago at the family's Internet cafe in the central German city of Kassel. His is one of 10 murders blamed on the NSU.
Its last known member goes on trial today, along with four supporters. At the videotaped meeting, German President Joachim Gauck put his arm around the elder Yozgat's shoulders, but Yozgat is not comforted.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)
YOZGAT: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He shouts: If the government offered us millions, I wouldn't take it. His frustration is shared by many among the three million people of Turkish descent living in Germany. They want to know why German authorities failed to uncover - let alone stop - a decade-long Neo-Nazi terror campaign against them. Instead, police blamed the victims, linking them to foreign criminal gangs. Barbara John is the government-appointed representative for the families.
BARBARA JOHN: In some cases, the police entered the private apartments of the families with dogs in order to find something. And of course all the neighbors looked at them and said: Well, you know, when the German police think something is wrong with this family, that they must have a point.
NELSON: It wasn't until late 2011 when authorities finally identified the murders as part of a homebred terror campaign by the National Socialist Underground. Police uncovered a gun used in the shootings as well as video-taped confessions by two NSU members who committed suicide.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATEMENT)
CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At a memorial service last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized to the victims. Several top officials - including the head of Germany's domestic security service - were forced to resign over the botched investigations. But critics say little has changed since then. Mely Kiak is a German author and journalist of Turkish descent.
MELY KIAK: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She says there are still too many people here who think anyone in Germany with immigrant roots doesn't belong and causes trouble. She and others also criticize the way German officials are handling the trial. It is starting three weeks later than planned because of problems over media access.
Nor does the government appear to have a strong case against the main defendant - Beate Zschaepe. Daniel Koehler of EXIT Deutschland, a group that helps people leave Neo-Nazi movements, says if prosecutors can't prove Zschaepe played a role in the killings, they will no longer be viewed as terrorist acts, but as simple murders committed by her two dead accomplices.
DANIEL KOEHLER: And this would mean, by the German legal definition, that this group was not a terrorist organization because they have to be three, at least.
NELSON: He adds that an acquittal would bolster German authorities who don't view Neo-Nazis as a serious threat to society. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is NPR News
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.