BERLIN – A regional court in Germany on Wednesday handed down a life sentence to a woman convicted for belonging to a neo-Nazi terror cell that murdered 10 people.
The Munich court considered that Beate Zschäpe, 43, had been a co-perpetrator of the killings even though she had not physically committed any of them.
This verdict put an end to a five-year trial that has gripped the German public as it uncovered the inner workings of the faction, which called itself the National-Socialist Underground and carried out deadly attacks against eight Turkish immigrants, a Greek immigrant and a female police officer between 2000-2007, as well as two bombings and 15 robberies at banks, post offices and supermarkets.
The cell was made up of Zschäpe and her two male companions, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, both of whom killed themselves inside a van while surrounded by police following a botched bank robbery in 2011.
Four accomplices were also convicted in the court’s decision: Ralf Wohlleben was sentenced to 10 years in prison for supplying the weapons the NSU used in their murders; Holger G. was given three years in jail, André E. was given two years and six months and the minor Carsten S. was sentenced to three years at a juvenile correctional facility.
During the trial’s final arguments, Zschäpe claimed she no longer believed in the far-right ideology and said she neither wished for nor took part in the murders.
“Please, don’t sentence me for something that I neither wanted nor did,” Zschäpe had implored the court’s presiding magistrate, Manfred Götzl.
In Dec. 2015, she broke her silence for the first time after two-and-a-half years in custody and claimed she did not belong to the cell and denied any links to the 10 murders.
Zschäpe at the time said that Böhnhardt and Mundlos, with whom she lived together, would tell her about the killings only after having committed the deeds, adding that she felt unable to report or abandon the men due to her emotional dependence on them.
After their suicide, she blew up the apartment and handed herself in to the authorities.
Police found evidence of the murders – which had been previously attributed to foreigners settling scores among themselves – within the apartment’s remains, including comic-book-style drawings showing the victims (generally small store-owners) being shot.
This discovery blew up into a scandal that engulfed German law enforcement and, in particular, the country’s domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).
When the BfV shredded key files regarding the NSU and made a series of crucial mistakes in the handling of the probe, the agency’s head at the time, Heinz Fromm, was forced to step down amid a public outcry.
While Zchäpe’s attorneys may still appeal the verdict at a federal court, it is unlikely that she will be able to avoid spending the rest of her life in confinement, as her sentence includes a factor – known as “extraordinary degree of guilt” in German law – that in practice precludes her from being prematurely released after 15 years even with stellar behavior as an inmate.