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Sole surviving member of German neo-Nazi murder cell gets life in prison

Beate Zschaepe is accused of establishing a neo-Nazi killer cell, the National Socialist Underground, that targeted mostly Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers
Christof Stache (AFP/File)

The only surviving member of a German neo-Nazi cell behind a string of racist murders was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday, ending one of the longest trials in Germany's post-war history.

Beate Zschaepe, 43, was found guilty on 10 counts of murder for her complicity in the deadly shootings of nine Turkish and Greek-born immigrants and a German policewoman carried out by clandestine trio known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Police say the NSU's two male members -- Zschaepe's former lovers Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt -- pulled the trigger in their killing spree from 2000 to 2007, before they died in an apparent suicide pact following a bungled bank heist in 2011.

Prosecutors accused Zschaepe of being an active NSU member who helped the two men by plotting the killings and two bomb attacks, as well as handling finances and providing a safe haven in their shared home.

Zschaepe received the maximum penalty for her complicity in the crimes -- a life term that translates to 15 years behind bars but can be extended if the convict is considered an ongoing threat to society.

BUNDESKRIMINALAMT/AFP/File

Also in the dock and facing up to 12 years jail are four men accused of having supported the NSU by providing the murder weapon, cash, identity papers and logistical aid during their years in hiding.

The co-accused are Ralf Wohlleben, a former member of the far-right NPD party, along with three others who have been identified only as Andre E., an unrepentant neo-Nazi, and Holger G. and Carsten S., former supporters turned witnesses.

- Organized fascists -

It was Zschaepe who revealed, after the two Uwes died, the scope of the NSU's bloody crimes to a shocked German public, by releasing a macabre confession video set to a Pink Panther cartoon theme, which mocked the victims and police.

It was only then that Germany woke up to the fact that the series of nationwide killings, long blamed by police on immigrant crime gangs, had in fact been committed by organised fascists from the country's formerly communist east.

The case deeply shocked a nation that has struggled to atone for its dark Nazi past and which had associated terrorism mainly with far-left and Islamist militants, not right-wing extremists.

Hendrik Schmidt (dpa/AFP)

Zschaepe has insisted she only learnt of the murders after they were committed. She has admitted only to helping plot some of the NSU's 15 bank robberies and setting fire to their shared home after the two men died.

The woman who grew up in the extremist skinhead subculture of post-reunification east Germany, also told the court that its racist ideology has "no meaning for me anymore".

- Shredded files -

The Munich court case, which began in May 2013, will end on its 438th day after hearing some 800 witnesses and experts, with 93 bereaved relatives as co-plaintiffs.

It was Germany's biggest trial since the 1960s Auschwitz hearings against perpetrators of the Holocaust, and the 1970s proceedings against the left-wing extremist Baader-Meinhof gang.

The files from the mega-trial now top 300,000 pages, but the victims' relatives say many questions remain unanswered, including how the killers chose their victims.

In 2012, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged that Germany would "do everything we can to clear up the murders and uncover the accomplices and backers and bring all perpetrators to justice".

Christof Stache (AFP/File)

The same year then head of Germany's BfV domestic intelligence agency, Heinz Fromm, was forced to resign when it emerged his service had shredded files related to the NSU suspects.

Several federal and state parliamentary committees later spent years trying to understand how the killers went undetected for so long, and the murky role of paid undercover informants inside the far-right subculture.

While the Munich trial has focused on the NSU "trio", the chairman of the last parliamentary inquest, Uli Groetsch, said it was clear that the three were "supported by a broad network of neo-Nazis".

On the eve of the verdict, victims' relatives voiced their belief that many militant Nazis remain in hiding.

"I'm 100 percent sure that there are still accomplices out there," said Abdulkerim Simsek, the son of the first NSU murder victim, Enver Simsek.

Simsek claimed that the BfV was still keeping some files under lock and key, charging that "there are obviously quite a few things that are being covered up."

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