Germany’s biggest terrorism trial in decades begins Monday. The case centers on a 38-year-old Beate Zschaepe, the surviving member of a right-wing extremist group called the National Socialist Underground. The group is accused of killing ten people, most of them of Turkish descent.
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.
During a recent meeting filmed by public broadcaster ARD, Ismail Yozgat wept as he described the murder of his only son, 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, to the German president.
Halit was fatally shot seven years ago at the family’s Internet café in the central German city of Kassel. His is just one of ten murders blamed on the NSU.
At the videotaped meeting, German President Joachim Gauck put his arm around the elder Yozgat’s shoulders, trying to show his government’s solidarity with the mostly Turkish victims of the racist murder spree.
Yozgat, however, is not comforted. He shouts: “If the government offered us millions, I wouldn’t take it!”
Ismail Yozgat’s 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.
“In some cases, the police entered the private apartments of the families with dogs in order to find something,” says Barbara John, the government-appointed representative for the families. “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, they must have a point.’”
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 shooting as well as video-taped confessions by two NSU members who committed suicide.
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.
“There are still too many people here who think anyone in Germany with immigrant roots doesn’t belong and causes trouble,” says Mely Kiak, a German author and journalist of Turkish descent.
Kiak and others also criticize the way German officials are handling the trial, which is starting three weeks later than planned because of problems over media access.
The government also doesn’t appear to have a strong case against main defendant Zschaepe, who is also accused in at least two bombings and more than a dozen bank robberies.
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.
“This would mean, by the German legal definition, that this group was not a terrorist organization because they have to be three, at least,” Koehler says.
Koehler says that an acquittal would bolster German authorities who don’t view neo-Nazis as a serious threat to society.