MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - The surviving member of a neo-Nazi cell blamed for a series of racist murders that scandalized Germany and shamed its authorities goes on trial on Monday in one of the most anticipated court cases in recent German history.
The chance discovery of the gang, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which had gone undetected for more than a decade, has forced Germany to acknowledge it has a more militant and dangerous neo-Nazi fringe than previously thought, and exposed staggering intelligence failings.
The trial in Munich will focus on 38-year-old Beate Zschaepe, who is charged with complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000-2007, as well as two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne, and 15 bank robberies.
“With its historical, social and political dimensions the NSU trial is one of the most significant of post-war German history,” lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement.
The case has profoundly shaken a country that believed it had learned the lessons of its past, and has reopened an uncomfortable debate about whether Germany must do more to tackle the far-right and lingering racist attitudes.
Four others charged with assisting the NSU will sit with Zschaepe on the bench.
The existence of the gang only came to light in November 2011 when the two men believed to have founded the NSU with Zschaepe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, committed suicide after a botched bank robbery and set their caravan ablaze in the eastern town of Eisenach.
In the charred vehicle, police found the gun used to murder all 10 victims. They also found a grotesque DVD presenting the NSU and claiming responsibility for the killings. In it the bodies of the murder victims are pictured while a cartoon Pink Panther tots up the number of dead.
After her companions’ suicides, Zschaepe is believed to have set fire to a flat she shared with the men in Zwickau, 180 km (110 miles) away, and gone on the run. Four days later she turned herself in to police in her hometown of Jena, saying “I’m the one you are looking for.”
For the victims’ families the trial will be the first chance to come face to face with Zschaepe, a woman whose troubling, blank expression and resolute silence since her arrest has left people struggling to make sense of her motives.
The trial offers a chance for the woman dubbed “Nazi bride” in the media to break her silence, but few think she will.
Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011, wrote to Zschaepe in May 2012, addressing her as “Dear Sister” and urging her to use the trial to spread far-right ideology, according to German media.
Hearings are scheduled into early 2014, and witnesses due to appear include Zschaepe’s estranged relatives and the parents of Mundlos and Boehnhardt.
Prosecutors say the gang chose people running small businesses or shops as easy, vulnerable targets, in an attempt to terrify migrants and hound them out of Germany.
Some of the relatives even came under suspicion themselves because police simply did not consider a far-right motive.
“All the relatives have the huge problem that they were never treated as victims. During the investigations they were either considered suspects, or as relatives of criminals,” said lawyer Angelika Lex.
The start of the trial comes as a relief to families, after it was postponed by a fortnight due to the court’s poor handling of media access. It initially did not guarantee any Turkish media a courtroom seat, despite the number of Turkish victims.
This prompted a successful complaint by a Turkish newspaper and the Munich court was ordered to redistribute seats, which it did via a lottery.
While judges try Zschaepe and the NSU’s suspected accomplices, Germany’s lower house of parliament is conducting its own inquiry into the institutional failings.
Germany’s patchwork of intelligence agencies are set to undergo reforms, after the inquiry found they failed to share information and neglected the far-right threat. The head of domestic intelligence resigned last July.
The trio had been known to authorities during their teenage years in Jena, for their racist hate crimes and bomb making, but had managed to escape arrest and assume new identities.
Additional reporting by Reuters television in Munich; Editing by Mark Trevelyan