BRUSSELS, Belgium — The trial of the last surviving member of a neo-Nazi group that is accused of killing immigrants in Germany began today in Munich.
Beate Zschaepe, 38, is charged with complicity in killing eight Turkish immigrants, a Greek man and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007. She is also charged with participating in two bombings in Cologne that wounded 23 people, 15 bank robberies and belonging to a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors said Zschaepe and the two other members of her group attacked people of non-German origin “to realize their racist ideals, influenced by the Nazis for a preservation of the German nation through carrying out murders and explosive attacks to bring about change in the government and society,” the New York Times reported.
Zschaepe belonged to the group, which called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU), with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt. The two men committed suicide in 2011 as police were coming to arrest them after a robbery.
Zschaepe turned herself in to officials a few days later, but denies the charges against her. Four others accused of assisting the group are also on trial.
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The trial will likely take more than a year to complete, with up to 600 witnesses expected to testify.
"With its historical, social and political dimensions the NSU trial is one of the most significant of post-war German history," lawyers for the family of the first victim, flower seller Enver Simsek, said in a statement, according to Al Jazeera.
The case is raising uncomfortable questions in Germany over how a neo-Nazi terror gang was able to carry out 10 murders between 2000 and 2007 without the security services even suspecting the group existed. Police only discovered the cell when Zschape turned herself in.
"Why were the authorities blind?" said a banner held by protesters supporting the victims' families outside the courthouse Monday.
German government officials have acknowledged the security forces neglected the threat from far-right extremists despite indications neo-Nazi groups are becoming increasingly violent.
Investigations by German media show at least 152 people were murdered by right-wing extremists between 1990 and 2012. In February alone, there were 941 right-wing hate resulting in 29 injuries, the business daily Handelsblatt reported Monday.
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"Citizens, politicians and journalists here in Germany fool themselves when it comes to right-wing radicalism," the paper said. "We tend to see it as being completely marginal, as though it takes place far from the center of society and the right-wingers will ultimately vanish by themselves. It has become apparent that they won't."
Police initially blamed the NSU killings on criminal gangs within Germany's 3.5-million-strong Turkish community. The extent of the security forces' failure is leading some to ask whether it went beyond incompetence and involved some level of collusion with the far right.
While the case is provoking a wave of soul-searching in the German media, the country is far from alone in facing a far-right threat.
Blog sites supporting Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik include frequent reports and contributions from groups or individuals around Europe who glorify him or claim they wish to emulate his attacks that killed 69 people.
A neo-Nazi cell in Hungary is blamed for the killing of six members of the Roma minority.
Nazi-inspired parties have also enjoyed electoral success in some European countries hit by the economic crisis — notably Greece and Hungary. This weekend in Budapest the far-right Jobbik party organized a demonstration against a meeting of the World Jewish Congress in the Hungarian capital.
Paul Ames reported from Brussels.