The highest-profile neo-Nazi murder trial in Germany in decades opened Monday amid tight security and intense media interest, with the five accused appearing in public for the first time since their arrest more than a year ago.
Police erected security barriers in anticipation of possible protests by far-right extremist groups, while hundreds of reporters queued outside the Munich courthouse in the hope of gaining one of the few available seats in the packed courtroom for the start of a trial scheduled to last for more than a year.
The main defendant is Beate Zschaepe, 38, accused by prosecutor of complicity in the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007. If convicted she faces life imprisonment.
Zschaepe is also accused of involvement in at least two bombings and 15 bank robberies carried out by her accomplices Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boenhardt, who died in an apparent murder-suicide in November 2011. The judges allowed Zschaepe's face to be filmed as she entered the court in a dark suit, her arms folded, before turning her back to the cameras.
Four male defendants are accused of assisting the self-styled National Socialist Underground in various ways:
— Ralf Wohlleben, 38, and Carsten Schultze, 33, are accused of being accessories to murder in the killing of the nine men. Prosecutors allege that they supplied the trio with the weapons and silencers used in the killings.
— Andre Eminger, 33, is accused of being an accessory in two of the bank robberies and in a 2001 bombing in Cologne's old town. He is also accused of two counts of supporting a terrorist organization.
— Holger Gerlach, 39, is accused of three counts of supporting a terrorist organization.
Like Zschaepe, the co-defendants were known to German authorities before the existence of the self-styled National Socialist Underground came to light. Many in Germany have asked how the country's well-funded security services, with their network of informants in the far-right scene, could have overlooked the group's existence for so long. For years, police suspected the immigrant victims of being involved with foreign gangs linked to gambling and drugs.
Families of those killed and survivors of the bomb attacks in particular have said they are hoping not just for justice, but answers to questions such as how the group chose its victims, none of whom were high-profile targets.
One of Zschaepe's three lawyers has claimed that his client faces "execution by media."
Wolfgang Stahl told public broadcaster SWR last week that Zschaepe was being portrayed as "evil incarnate, a murderer, a member of a murder gang, a Nazi bride or a Nazi killer" in a way that could prejudice the trial judges.
Her lawyers have said she will remain silent during the lengthy trial. Under German law Zschaepe won't have to make a plea until the end, though her lawyers have said they will contest the prosecution charges.