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Justice

Germans stress court's independence in NSU trial

Ankara has protested to Berlin after Turkish journalists were not allocated seats in the courtroom for a closely-watched neo-Nazi trial. But can - or should - politicians be able to influence the courts?

Politicians and the public in Turkey are unhappy that Turkish media did not receive any seats in the press gallery for the trial of alleged neo-Nazi terrorist Beate Zschäpe and four alleged supporters of the terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU). Eight of the 10 victims had Turkish origins.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, to demand guaranteed access for Turkish journalists and politicians at the trial in Munich. Westerwelle expressed sympathy for the Turkish position, but stressed the independence of the judiciary, the German Foreign Ministry said.

The daily Hürriyet with a headline that translates to Turkish Press Not Watned 
Photo: Daniel Naupold/dpa

Turkish press felt pushed out of the court's gallery

German courts are independent. This goes back to the separation of powers, which states that the judiciary, legislative and executive branches of government are separate entities. "The independence of the court is immensely important in the rule of law, and nobody, including politicians, should doubt it," Hajo Funke, a political scientist in Berlin, told DW. Still, he believes the Munich court would be well advised to be as flexible as possible in the allocation of seats so that the public can appreciate this. "This they can be, and are being," Funke added.

No seats for the Turkish press

There are 50 seats reserved in the courtroom for representatives of the press. These were assigned to media organizations in the order in which journalists applied for press accreditation. The first 50 applicants got seats. Everyone else who followed did not, and was placed on a waiting list.

An alternative could have been reserving some seats for Turkish journalists, as most of the NSU victims were of Turkish origin and media interest in the country is high, Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, a former judge at the Federal Constitutional Court, suggested to DW.

Similar measures were taken in the trial of TV weatherman Jörg Kachelmann, a Swiss national accused of raping a woman in Germany. In this trial, which also received significant press coverage, a certain number of seats was allotted to Swiss journalists.

The press gallery in the courtroom where the trial against German Beate Zschäpe
Photo: REUTERS/Michael Dalder

There will be 50 seats for reporters in the court and no closed-circuit video of the proceedings

Credible, independent judiciary

Due to the controversial seat assignments, faith in the credibility of the German judiciary is sinking in Turkey. Political scientist Funke said such a reaction is an overreaction as there are no signs of possible corruption of the court. "I am convinced there will be an independent trial in the NSU case," he added.

Ruprecht Polenz, head of the German parliament's foreign committee, took a similar position. He said he trusts the German judiciary and that's what he told Turkey. He agreed that the seat assignment was handled unfortunately and without much tact. "But to go from that to believing that the whole trial won't be fair and held according to the rule of law is just overshooting the mark," Polenz said to German public TV broadcaster ZDF. He also said "Turkey can fully trust the German rule of law and the German judiciary."

Pressure from Turkish and German public

Montage of eight Turkish victims of NSU murders
Photo: Bernd Thissen dpa

Eight of the 10 NSU victims had Turkish origins

Before the phone call between Turkish foreign minister Davutoglu and his German colleague Westerwelle, the German minister for integration, Maria Böhmer, had already put out a statement saying, "The whole world is watching Germany on this case." Out of respect for the NSU victims and their families, and to gain back trust, Böhmer said she thinks it is crucial for Turkish and Greek journalists to be given access to the court room. She asked the court to reconsider its decision and stressed that solutions were found in past trials with similar media interest.

The pressure on the judges from the Turkish as well as the German public is mounting. Political scientist Funke welcomed the public's considered protest and its indirect influence.

"But that does not mean that the court is not independent anymore," Funke said, adding that the public could influence the conditions surrounding the case but not the trial itself.

The NSU trial is scheduled to begin on April 17 at the Munich appellate court.

DW.DE