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Prosecutors demand life in jail for last surviving member of neo-Nazi terror cell

German prosecutors on Tuesday sought a life sentence for the surviving female member of a neo-Nazi trio accused of a string of racist murders that targeted mainly Turkish immigrants.

Prosecutors demand life in jail for last surviving member of neo-Nazi terror cell
Beate Zschäpe. Photo: DPA.

Beate Zschäpe, 42, is co-accused in the 10 killings carried out by the other two members of the self-styled National Socialist Underground (NSU), Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, between 2000 and 2007.

Zschäpe for years lived in hiding with Mundlos and Boehnhardt, who shot dead eight men of Turkish origin, a Greek migrant and a German policewoman before the two died in an apparent suicide pact after a botched bank robbery in 2011.

After the men's deaths, Germany was shocked to discover that the nationwide killings – long blamed by police and media on migrant crime gangs and dubbed the “döner (kebab) murders” – were in fact committed by a far-right cell with xenophobic motives.

Prosecutor Herbert Diemer told the Munich court on Tuesday that Zschäpe shared the “fanatical” world view of the two men and their aim to spread fear and terror among immigrants with random murders.

He pointed to the severity of the crimes and called for the maximum life term, which under German law means a prisoner spends 15 years behind bars, followed by indefinite preventive detention on security grounds.

Prosecutors charge that Zschäpe was an NSU member and aided the crimes, also including two bomb attacks and 15 bank robberies, by covering the men's tracks, handling finances and providing a safe retreat in their shared home.

The mammoth trial – with 95 victims' relatives listed as co-plaintiffs – has so far lasted more than four years and heard almost 600 witnesses.

 A verdict is expected in several months' time in the trial where Zschäpe is in the dock together with four suspected NSU supporters.

Institutional prejudice

Zschäpe has denied guilt and described herself as a passive and innocent bystander to the bloody crimes.

She has admitted only to an arson charge, having torched the trio's common home after the men died, and of then distributing a DVD in which the group boasted about the killings in a film set to a comical Pink Panther theme.

She broke her silence only a year ago, telling the court that she was involved “neither in the planning nor the execution” of any crimes, and that she was “horrified” to learn about them afterwards.

She admitted that as a youth in the former communist east Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she had “indeed identified with nationalist ideology”.

But she insisted that “today I judge people not by their origin and political affiliation but by their behaviour”.

The random discovery of the NSU in 2011 deeply embarrassed German authorities, exposing police and domestic intelligence flaws and raising uncomfortable questions about how the cell went undetected for 13 years.

German security services faced withering criticism for only associating terrorism with far-left or Islamist groups, not neo-Nazis.

A parliamentary panel in 2013 blamed institutional prejudice among security services for failing for years to solve the series of assassination-style shootings committed with the same Ceska handgun.

It also criticized excesses in the use of paid undercover informants, including violent leading neo-Nazis, who fed the money they received from the state back into their racist and militant organizations.

READ ALSO: 'Neo-Nazis are rooted in the heart of our society'

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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