Al Jazeera World

The Ceska Murders: Case Solved?

How Germany’s failure to track down the killers of nine immigrants affected its relationship with the Turkish community.

Filmmaker: Sibel Karakurt

On July 11, 2018, the Munich Regional Court found Beate Zschape of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) group guilty on 10 counts of racially-motivated murder and sentenced her to life imprisonment. It also found four other defendants guilty of related crimes.

The trial had lasted five years and had been expected finally to draw a line under the murders of eight ethnic Turks and an ethnic Greek, as well as a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007. But lenient sentences for two of the accused ranked among the victims’ families. 

At last, the phantom murderer has a face and years of not knowing what happened are over.

by Jens Rabe, lawyer

“Beate Zschape has been sentenced for life, I am content with that,” Gamze Kubasik, the daughter of one of the NSU murder victims, said. “I can live with [the verdict for] Carsten Schultze, as well; also with the sentence for Holger Gerlach. But [the verdicts for] Andre Eminger and Ralf Wohlleben, I found very disappointing and very sad. I first had to contain myself and needed some time to calm down. They got a very mild sentence; in my opinion, the court passed a very, very mild sentence for them. To me, they were just as guilty, and in one category like the two murderers who are dead now, and like Beate Zschape.”

There were protests at the lower sentences in a case which had been running in Germany for 18 years. The police investigation had been painfully slow and the only connection it identified was that all the victims had been shot with the same gun, a rare Czech-manufactured Ceska 83 pistol.

Rather than looking more closely at a racial motive, the investigation had focused on possible mafia and drug-related connections; while the media stereotyped the serial killings as the “Kebab” or “Doner Murders”, even though only one of the victims worked in a food outlet.

Police investigated the family lives of the victims, their supposed business connections and social backgrounds but did not find anything in common among the victims other than their ethnicity and the murder weapon.

The victims’ families were disappointed, if not angered, particularly when it eventually emerged, almost by accident, that the far-right NSU group had been responsible. The then 36-year-old Beate Zschape gave herself up, but her two alleged accomplices had already been found dead.

On November 8, 2012, Beate Zschape was charged with forming a terrorist organisation, the NSU; of murdering eight ethnic Turks, one ethnic Greek and a policewoman; and with fifteen robberies, two bombings and other attacks.

A 500-page indictment was prepared by the Federal Prosecution Office and presented to Munich Higher Regional Court – the hearings began on May 6, 2013. It was one of Germany’s highest-profile trials since World War II and involved five defendants, 600 witnesses, more than 50 lawyers, 488 pages of criminal charges and 280,000 pages of interrogation records.

On trial with Zschape were Ralf Wohllebn (charged with helping her to find the Ceska 83 gun), Carsten Schultze, Holger Gerlach and Andrea Emminger, who were charged with providing money, guns, identity cards and cars to the NSU.

“It was particularly atrocious that these criminals were undiscovered for so long because their motives were based on anti-foreigner sentiment and neo-Nazi ideology,” says Karl Huber, former president of the Munich Higher Regional Court.

Chancellor Angela Merkel apologised to the families of the victims in 2012, saying “Hardly anyone thought the perpetrators of these murders were right-wing terrorists. Some family members were unfairly suspected. It was really heartbreaking. And for this, I am really sorry.”

The case raised serious questions about the social conditions in Germany that enabled the NSU to carry out their crimes. The Bundestag instigated a committee of inquiry into the neglect in the investigation of a racist motive for the murders enabling the killers to evade detection for over a decade.

The trial also took place as a new right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained 94 seats in the Bundestag in the 2017 elections, suggesting that the Ceska Murders reflect a wider shift towards anti-immigration ideologies and far-right politics across Germany as a whole.