The victims' families feel justice has been denied to them since the German court could not prosecute the operators of neo-Nazi gangs who ordered their "pawns" to inflict violence upon religious and ethnic minorities.
On July 11, the Munich Court of Appeals delivered a much-awaited verdict on the murders of eight Turkish-German citizens committed by the members of a notorious neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
Much to the dismay of the Turkish-German community, activists and a large number of people from the German majority, the court's decision was too lenient.
When the presiding judge Manfred Gotzl named the only person who was accused, Beate Zschape and sentenced her to lifelong imprisonment, several dozen men and women associated with Germany's far-right and neo-Nazi groups burst into celebration inside the courtroom.
It was the biggest lawsuit against a neo-Nazi group since the Nuremberg Trials of World War II, says the NSU watch, a Berlin-based human rights group. But contrary to the Nuremberg verdict, which ordered harsh punishments against the Nazis who carried out war crimes, Gotzl's decision was pleasing only to Germany's neo-Nazis.
Between 2000 and 2007, the NSU members perpetrated several hate crimes. The group is also accused of killing at least ten people in Germany. Out of the ten victims, eight belonged to Germany’s three-million-strong Turkish migrant community. Most of the murders continue to remain unsolved. The NSU is also accused of several robberies and bombings, precisely targeting the neighbourhoods populated by Turks.
The NSU trials continued for five years and the state spent at least $34.8 million (30 million euros) investigating the case.
Several first person accounts from the Turkish community suggest that the killers were part of neo-Nazi groups who meticulously planned the attacks on German minorities in different parts of the country. The community believes that the government and its intelligence agencies had prior knowledge of the murders and yet they turned a blind eye to the perpetrators.
The victims' families believe the German government made a scapegoat out of Zschape, giving her a life sentence, while three others had only lenient mild ones, while the real culprits were shielded.
Zschape's co-accused, Uwe Bohnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, were found dead in a campervan in mysterious circumstances on November 4, 2011, following a failed bank robbery in Eisenach, a town in the German state of Thuringia. According to the German police, Bohnhardt and Mundlos committed suicide.
Over the course of the police investigation, five key eyewitnesses died in suspicious circumstances. Two of them were found dead in a car with seat belts on and burn marks on their bodies.
There is one more accused in the case. Andre Eminger, an ardent neo-Nazi, who allegedly supplied the NSU cell with both information and logistics for its atrocities against Germany's migrant communities. Eminger, as per court testimonies, has also facilitated several hate crimes against German minorities.
For many observers, who followed the case closely, Gotzl was known for giving out severe judgements. Therefore, a strict sentence against Eminger seemed inevitable.
Eminger's body was covered with anti-Semitic and Nazi-themed tattoos, including the one that reads: Die Jew Die. On the day of a court hearing, he stood before Gotzl wearing a t-shirt with a far-right heavy metal band's provocative logo.
Meanwhile, Eminger's neo-Nazi fans across Germany wore black shirts and camouflage pants in solidarity. Eminger is now regarded as a hero in the country's fascist circles.
Recounting the court hearing, Mustafa Yeneroglu, a 43-year-old Turkish-German lawyer, said Gotzl did not allow Ismail Yozgat, the father of victim Halit Yozgat, to speak during the proceedings.
Instead, he said, Gotzl seemed fine with the supporters of Eminger shouting slogans and celebrating as the court proceedings went on.
“I could not stand there anymore and left the courtroom in protest,” Yeneroglu told TRT World.
Halit Yozgat, the victim, ran an internet cafe in the German city of Kassel in Hesse. He was gunned down in the cafe during business hours.
As his killers entered the cafe, Yozgat was dealing with a customer who happened to be German spy Andreas Temme. Temme worked for the state’s domestic secret service, which is known as Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) or the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Temme, according to court testimonies, saw Yozgat falling onto the floor after getting shot in the head. Temme's reaction was astonishing. He put some coins on the cash counter for use of the internet, leaving Yozgat on the ground as he bled to death.
The German authorities arrested Temme two weeks after the murder. But Hessian BfV, a local intelligence agency, interfered and prevented the police investigation, according to the NSU Watch, which has tracked the neo-Nazi activities for more than a decade.
“A leading member of the homicide division that investigated the murder of Halit Yozgat testified before the court that he was convinced Andreas Temme either saw the murderers or was in some way involved in the crime himself,” the NSU Watch reported.
The police investigation also revealed that Temme had spoken to a far-right informant an hour before the murder. The police later raided Temme's house and found Nazi and anti-Semitic literature, illegal firearms, drugs and evidence tying him to the local neo-Nazi circles.
The German judiciary did not press any charges against Temme. He walked out a free man.
“Andreas Temme is a state informant who is known as Little Adolf,” said Yeneroglu, describing Temme as a man whose friends and acquaintances considered him a minor version of Germany's former leader Adolf Hitler, who carried out a genocide against the Jews during World War II.
Yeneroglu joined Turkey's governing AK Party in 2015, leading the country's human rights commission for two years.
German 'deep state'
“If you look at the sentences for Zschape’s co-conspirators, this is an unbelievably soft verdict,” said Dirk Laabs, a German journalist, who co-authored a book on the NSU network along with Stefan Aust, the former manager of the country’s prestigious magazine, Der Spiegel.
In the book, "Heimatschutz: Der Staat und Die Mordserie des NSU," which could be translated in English as “Homeland Security: The State and the NSU Murders,” the authors strongly argue that German intelligence services have strong connections with the NSU network across the country.
According to German authorities, Zschape, Bohnhardt and Mundlos founded the NSU in the late 1990s when the unification of West and East Germany fuelled neo-Nazi activities across the country. After losing to West Germany’s liberal democracy, former East Germany, a homogenous communist state, became a safe haven for neo-Nazi members.
Zschape, Bohnhardt and Mundlos were born and raised in East Germany, which also happens to be the birthplace of Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Germany is considered to be the engine of the European Union. As the country broke the Nazi stranglehold following World War II, the US supported it on the premise of promoting a democratic society which shunned its Nazi past.
Seven decades later, Yeneroglu argues Germany is unable to shake off its Nazi legacy from the state’s institutions, which includes the intelligence services.
Germany has about 19 officially recognised intelligence agencies, one of the largest network of spies in the world.
“These intelligence agencies are functioning as the continuation of Hitler-era intelligence agencies in any case," Yeneroglu said. "In German statecraft, the less de-Nazificated institutions are its intelligence services. This is a well-known fact by the German public.”
Yeneroglu said German intelligence community has a strong influence in the workings of the "deep state."
A deep state is often an elusive network of groups operating within the government, sidestepping the rule of law.
Following WWII, the first chief of West Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst, which is the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) of current Germany, was Reinhard Gehlen, who headed Hitler’s intelligence community and oversaw the Soviet front.
A loyal servant to Hitler to the very end, Gehlen became a turncoat and collaborated with the American forces as the war came to its end. In return, he was allowed to keep his Nazi intelligence network intact. The US used him as a tool against the Soviet Union and its communist allies.
Backed by the US, Gehlen soon founded "Gehlen Org" which gathered intelligence against the former Soviet Union and fed it to the CIA and the Pentagon. Gehlen Org also launched the Operation Gladio, a secret “stay-behind” paramilitary network, which operated against the communists in numerous countries.
During the Cold War, the Gladio network worked outside the rule of law in the name of 'saving democracy' against the communist threat. Not much is known about what happened to these “stay-behind” networks after the Cold War.
But Yeneroglu said this Nazi legacy left a strong footprint in the German deep state and the BND, Germany's premier intelligence agency.
“During the 1990s, with the increasing number of Turks and other migrant communities in Germany, the state’s political establishment was divided in two opposite camps,” said Bulent Guven, a German-Turkish political scientist and a board member of a Hamburg-based business association Union of International Democrats (UID).
One defended the integration of migrant communities in Germany and the other advocated an anti-migrant policy and the purification of the German state, said Guven, a partner at Modus Factum, a German business consulting company.
Both ideologies were prevalent in Germany in the 1990s, when neo-Nazi attacks were on the rise, killing nearly 200 people with migrant backgrounds. At the same time, the German state introduced policies to grant citizenship to immigrants.
According to Guven’s analysis, one part of the German state reached out to migrants and minorities while the other part, which secretly encouraged the neo-Nazi groups, worked against them. They tried to impose cultural hegemony over the minorities, primarily Turks.
Guven said the four people tried and sentenced in the NSU murder case were just "pawns" who operated at the behest of "the state's domestic intelligence services."
“The people in the intelligence agencies who operated these violent pawns in each state were not tried at all. The government closed the case without exposing these racists,” Guven said.
“The murders were a deep state operation. That's how a majority in the Turkish community believes in,” Guven said.
The unresolved secrets of the NSU
The mystery and questions that shroud the string of murders continue to haunt the Turkish community in Germany. They find it hard to come to terms with major discrepancies like Bohnhardt and Mundlos committing suicide in their campervan and their housemate and companion Zschape burning down their apartment in Zwickau in Saxony. According to the police investigation, Zschape set the house on fire the same day when her two companions were found dead in the vehicle.
The victims' families also want to know why the Federal Intelligence Services destroyed 310 files related to the NSU murder case.
“Before the case began, so many documents had already been destroyed by security and intelligence units,” said Kemal Su, a Turkish-German lawyer, who closely followed the case.
In Germany, 13 different parliamentary commissions have been formed to examine the NSU structure and its effects on the society. During the commission hearings, “German MPs often complained that they cannot read the documents because of spoliation of evidence by intelligence services,” Su told TRT World.
Germany’s former top prosecutor Harald Range described the series of murders as the country's 9/11 moment, a wake up call to act against the violent neo-Nazi groups.
“None of the pledges were kept. They did not take a firm action against institutional racism in Germany,” Yeneroglu said.
Instead, senior intelligence officials seized the documents related to Yozgat’s murder, making them classified for 120 years.
On July 11, as the court announced the verdict, one neo-Nazi fan of Eminger told a German blogger that they finally "won."
Emre Yurdakul contributed to this article.