German Neo-Nazi Trial Opens Amid Debate Over Media Access

Beate Zschaepe
Beate Zschaepe enters the courtroom prior to the start of her trial at a Munich courthouse on May 6, 2013. Photographer: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

The trial of Beate Zschaepe, a member of a neo-Nazi cell accused of a series of xenophobic murders, opened in Munich today -- after weeks in which public attention focused more on the court’s media policy than the charges.

While the trial is to review alleged acts of a neo-Nazi trio operating undetected for more than a decade, the court’s media access policy has dominated headlines. It caused an outcry in March after distributing press seats in a way that excluded media from Turkey and Greece -- the countries of origin for nine of the 10 people that prosecutors said the group killed.

“This court apparently hasn’t understood the historical dimension of the case and what it means for the victims,” said Thomas Henne, chairman of Forum Justizgeschichte, a society looking into recent German legal history. “This isn’t just a simple murder case.”

The National Socialist Underground, or NSU, allegedly killed the 10 people as part of a plan to terrorize minorities and force them to leave the country. Eight of those murdered between 2000 and 2006 were of Turkish origin. The others were a Greek man and a German policewoman. The killing spree came to light in November 2011 after Zschaepe’s companions, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, committed suicide in a camper van in eastern Germany.

Terror Cell

The probe prompted investigators and politicians to ask how a right-wing terror cell could have operated underground for more than a decade. Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events, which led to a parliamentary investigation and scrutiny over Germany’s patchwork of state-led counterintelligence bodies, a “disgrace for Germany.”

The Munich Higher Regional Court initially granted 50 press passes on a first-come, first-served basis, leaving most international news organizations without a guaranteed place in the courtroom.

A Turkish newspaper sued to get access and won an injunction from Germany’s top court, which said at least three seats need to be granted to reporters from the victims’ countries of origin.

Afterward, the Munich judges on April 15 postponed the opening originally scheduled for April 17. This riled the victims’ relatives, who had prepared for the opening day, taking time off work and booking hotels. The court today adjourned the trial until May 14 to rule on defense bids to have the presiding judge removed for bias.

Major Newspapers

The court also retracted its original press pass distribution and decided to allot the seats within three media groups by lottery. The move, aimed at pacifying criticism, only sparked new controversy when most of Germany’s major newspapers, including Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, didn’t get a ticket. Instead, women’s magazine Brigitte won a seat.

“The presiding judge, after analyzing the legal situation, decided to use a lottery to distribute the places,” court spokeswoman Margarete Noetzel said.

By snubbing the public and victims’ groups alike, the judges have raised suspicion that they lack the sensitivity needed to tackle such a case and its repercussions, said legal historian Henne.

“The judges need to understand that this case needs to be seen in line with the Auschwitz trials of the 60s as well as the left wing terrorism cases of the 70s,” said Henne.

Zschaepe appeared in court today alongside four other NSU supporters. Her lawyers have said the facts don’t support the murder charge.

Boehnhardt, Mundlos and Zschaepe in 1998 decided to “bring to life their racist ideas of ‘conserving the German nation’ through murders of arbitrarily chosen citizens with immigrant roots,” prosecutors said when they filed the charges. “Their goal was to make members of that part of the population leave Germany out of fear for their security.”

The court has scheduled 86 days of trial and probably will need more, the tribunal’s president said in March. More than 70 relatives of victims have registered as associated plaintiffs in the case.

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