The trial of the neo-Nazi terrorist group known as the National Socialist Underground has reached its 100th day. And the families of the victims are concerned about the conduct of both the judge and the prosecutors.
Suspected serial killers Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos can't testify. They took their own lives on November 4, 2011 to evade arrest. A video produced by the group they formed, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), bears witness to the fact that these two far-right extremists almost certainly shot dead 10 people. On the tape, in which images of the cartoon character the Pink Panther points to the photos of the victims, the NSU glorifies its own deeds with a sickening contempt for human life.
The video is an important piece of evidence in the Munich courtroom where the third and presumably last NSU member, Beate Zschäpe, will face her 100th day of trial on April 1, along with four suspected accomplices. A friend and accomplice of Böhnhardt and Mundlos, Zschäpe had the chance to wipe the video. Instead she did the opposite and sent several copies to the media before turning herself in four days after the suicide of her neo-Nazi comrades.
Why she did this is one of many still unanswered questions. As the chief suspect in the NSU trial, she could certainly make a decisive contribution to clearing up the series of murders, but she has not said a word in court since the trial began on May 6, 2013.
Disappointment for victims' families
The 39-year-old's silence is a serious test of the patience for the many relatives of the 10 victims who are attending the trial. Some believe her behavior is a deliberate attempt to extend their suffering. Some of them were themselves suspected of complicity in the murders of their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and sisters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's promise that the murders would be thoroughly investigated once gave them comfort, hope, and courage. But after 11 months of trial most of the plaintiffs have lost faith in a fair trial or a just sentence. Zschäpe's self-confident, occasionally even cheerful demeanor, has played a major role in that. She has remained unmoved throughout, even when her mother and cousin testified on her behalf.
No sign of weakness
She behaves very differently towards her three defense attorneys, who always stand protectively in front of her - to make things difficult for the curious photographers - when she enters court room A 101. Zschäpe often smiles as she confers with the trio of defenders, as the visitors can clearly see from their gallery three meters above her head.
Rarely does she tell the court, through her representatives, that she is unwell and can no longer follow the proceedings. This could well be the case, but the suspected far-right terrorist - prosecutors have so far been unable to prove that she was directly involved in any of the killings - is determined to avoid even the smallest sign of weakness.
For the victims' relatives, it is small comfort that two of the NSU's suspected helpers have broken their silence - for Carsten S. and Holger G. claim they did not know of the series of murders. Meanwhile Andre E. and Ralf Wohlleben, a former senior functionary in the far-right National Democratic Party, are also maintaining their silence. But regardless of these four men's level of involvement in the killings, Zschäpe remains the face of the NSU trial.
The woman behind this face will presumably maintain her silence in the coming 86 days of the trial too. They are scheduled up until Christmas this year, though a verdict is not expected until 2015, judging by the way the trial has panned out so far and the occasionally questionable witnesses, who often belong to the defendant's personal circle of acquaintances, Germany's neo-Nazi scene, or else to intelligence agencies.
The court has cross-examined countless experts, who collected or analyzed evidence, as well as eye-witnesses - though none who say they actually saw a murder take place. This unavoidable complexity in the hearings has made the NSU trial exhausting and emotional. This is especially true when the victims' relatives describe their own suffering. But it is not only Zschäpe's silence that exasperates them - they are also angered when presiding judge Manfred Götzl reins in persistent questioning by their lawyers. But though his tone has occasionally been inappropriate, he cannot be accused of violating court protocol.
More questions, fewer answers
But families are also often nonplussed by the conduct of the state prosecutors when they dismiss as irrelevant their lawyers' requests to present evidence. Sebastian Scharmer, the attorney representing the interests of the family of Mehmet Kubasik, who was murdered in Dortmund in 2006, has openly accused the prosecutors of lacking interest in investigating the murders. Gamse Kubasik, Kubasik's daughter, has expressed her bitter disappointment, telling Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper that the worst thing was that "there are more and more questions and fewer and fewer answers."
State prosecutor Herbert Diemer, meanwhile, told the same paper that he was satisfied with the proceedings so far, remarking that they were "on the right path." The hearings, he said, reflected the results of police investigations. Zschäpe has been charged with 10 counts of committing murder "malignantly and with little motive." Defending attorney Wolfgang Heer, on the other hand, believes his own reasoning has been confirmed - that there is no legally-admissible evidence that "his client was involved in the killings."
By the logic of their arguments, Diemer should demand a life sentence, while Heer and his colleagues ought to demand an acquittal. In the 99 days of the trial, there has been no indication that the rest of the trial will bring any major surprises - unless Beate Zschäpe breaks her silence after all.
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