THE surviving member of a German neo-Nazi cell accused of a string of racially motivated murders went on trial yesterday with dozens of anti-racist protesters demonstrating against the failure of the German state to protect residents against extremists.
Amid tight security, Beate Zschaepe (38) appeared in court charged with alleged complicity in the killing of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007.
The trial in Munich will raise questions about the failings of German security services and police, who suspected the immigrant victims of connections with organised crime. Police officials have been accused of failing to pursue tip-offs about the neo-Nazi cell, the National Socialist Underground.
Protesters outside court waved red and white Turkish national flags and held up photographs of the victims. For years, victims' families were told by police that their relations may have got involved in drug smuggling.
The head of Germany's domestic intelligence resigned last July after staff admitted shredding files relevant to the case, and a parliamentary committee has been set up to look into what went wrong.
Ms Zschaepe is also accused of involvement in at least two nail bombings and 15 bank robberies carried out by her accomplices, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt, who died in an apparent suicide pact in 2011 after a bank robbery went wrong.
Ms Zschaepe, nicknamed die Nazi-Braut – the Nazi bride – by the German press for her relationships with the two men, wore a black trouser suit, pressed white shirt and earrings.
In court, she chatted calmly with her defence team, drank water and took a piece of chewing gum from one of her lawyers. Four men are on trial alongside her accused of helping the neo-Nazi group.
Proceedings were adjourned after defence lawyers accused the presiding judge, Manfred Goetzl, of bias. Ms Zschaepe has complained that while the defendants' lawyers are being searched as they enter the court building, the prosecution, judges and court staff are not.
The lawyer for another defendant, Ralf Wohlleben, who is accused of supplying the gang with weapons and silencers, has also complained that while Ms Zschaepe has three public defence lawyers, his client has only one. Judge Goetzl said that he would rule on defence motions that he should recuse himself by May 14.
Following the deaths of Mundlos and Boenhardt – and an explosion at an alleged "safe house" used by the gang in Zwickau, eastern Germany – police discovered DVDs in which the cell introduced itself as the National Socialist Underground.
Police and intelligence services have been criticised for failing to share information and to pursue tip-offs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has apologised to victims' families and acknowledged official failings.
Some newspapers have portrayed the woman from the former communist East Germany as "evil incarnate," according to one of her lawyers, and one protest sign labelled her the "Hitler-child Zschaepe".
Ms Zschaepe's lawyers have said she will remain silent during the trial, which is expected to last two years.