Neo-Nazi trial raises some awkward questions for Germany

BERLIN (AFP) - A German neo-Nazi murder trial over the killings of 10 people has raised uncomfortable questions about murky links that the police and the intelligence services have with the extreme right.

In November 2011, the German public was shocked to learn that a group calling itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU) had claimed responsibility for the murders of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek shopkeeper and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007.

Until then, investigators had directed their probe against Germany's large Turkish community itself, suspecting a gangland dispute among rival mafia syndicates behind what the media long dubbed the "kebab murders".

Meanwhile the three NSU members - Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, who died in November 2011 in an apparent murder-suicide, and Beate Zschaepe, who turned herself in - lived a low-profile existence in the eastern state of Thuringia while allegedly gunning down their victims and robbing banks. The trial starts on Monday.

"We must admit today with great shame that few, too few of us, thought it was possible that (such crimes) could take place in Germany," Thuringia interior minister Joerg Gelbert said in a speech a few months after the NSU killing spree came to light.

The far right, barely a blip on the national electoral map, suddenly revealed itself as capable of what prosecutors say was a years-long terrorist campaign.

Police say the suspects had the direct or indirect assistance of 129 people - proof that the NSU trio were not "lone wolves".

Nearly all the alleged accomplices had ties to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, which the nation's 16 states are trying to have banned by the country's top court.

During the ongoing probe into what went wrong in the NSU case, Germany has uncovered oversights, missteps and stunning negligence by the police and the domestic intelligence services that hobbled the murder investigation.

Above all, Germany realised that the security services had chronically played down the danger of the rightwing extremists in its midst, staining the country's reputation of having learned the lessons of its Nazi past.

Mr Heinz Fromm, director of the domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, resigned last July after staff admitted to shredding files relevant to the case. Media reports said the documents revealed that two of their informants had ties to the NSU.

The scandal exposed a sprawling web of contacts between the secret services and the far right in which the state systematically exchanged cash for information.

In the case of the NPD, the party was often aware of the informants in its ranks.

"In many cases, the money paid was shared with the party which filtered the information provided in exchange," said Mr Gideon Bortsch, an expert on the far right at the University of Potsdam outside Berlin.

Furthermore, surveillance of the neo-Nazi scene was reined in after the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, with resources poured into keeping tabs on Islamic extremism.

"There is a consensus today that that decision was a mistake," said Mr Sebastian Edathy, a deputy from the opposition Social Democrats who chairs a parliamentary committee investigating the NSU fiasco.

The police, too, appeared to ignore that the murders could have a political bent.

"It scares me that the public sphere as a whole completely failed to see that all these crimes could be linked," Mr Borscht said.

"There was a complete blindness to the racist nature of these killings."

The NSU affair is just one case feeding suspicion of possible collusion between the security services and the far right.

The federal interior ministry reported recently that 266 neo-Nazis with outstanding arrest warrants were still at large, many of them accused of violent crimes or even murder.

Even the official statistics seem to underestimate the number of crimes that could be traced back to neo-Nazis.

In late March, the weekly Die Zeit and the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel documented at least 152 murders committed by rightwing extremists between 1990 and 2012 in Germany plus another 18 in which a racist motive was highly likely.

The interior ministry counted 63 during the same period.