Life in prison for member of German neo-Nazi network found guilty of 10 murders

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Beate Zschaepe (Photo: Joerg Koch/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — One of the sole surviving members of a German neo-Nazi network was found guilty Wednesday of 10 counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Beate Zschaepe, 43, was a member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a right-wing terror group responsible for the murders of eight ethnic Turks and one Greek citizen (known as the Ceska murders) and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007, as well as two bombings in the city of Cologne and 15 bank robberies.

The verdict was announced at a court in Munich in Bavaria, southern Germany, where Judge Manfred Goetzl noted the "particular severity" of Zschaepe's guilt as he handed down the sentence.

Zschaepe was convicted on all charges, including the 10 murders, 32 counts of attempted murder related to the Cologne bombings, robberies and membership of a terrorist group, according to the verdict. The defendant was driven by a clear ideology and her crimes were "politically motivated," the judgment reads.

The trial was one of the longest in German history, lasting more than five years, and one of the most scandalous, as evidence emerged that police had failed to investigate right-wing motives in several of the murder cases. The revelations led to an inquiry into how police had neglected to follow key leads.

It was only after two members of the NSU – Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt – died following a botched bank robbery in an apparent suicide pact and left behind a video confessing their crimes that police began investigating the group in connection with the murders.

Following their deaths, Zschaepe set fire to the apartment in Zwickau where the three lived before handing herself in to police. During the trial, she confessed to arson but claimed not to know about the murders until after they happened.

The judgment alleges however that, along with Mundlos and Boehnhardt, Zschaepe was the third founder – and key member – of the NSU, and that she burned the apartment with the intention of destroying evidence of their crimes.

The trial had gripped the German nation since it began in 2013, but acquired new significance as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entered the country in 2015 and 2016, triggering a spike in racially motivated attacks and a shift to the right by several political parties as they sought to counter the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann welcomed Wednesday's announcement, calling the sentence "a just punishment" for "the cold-blooded and unprecedented series of crimes by the NSU."

Zschaepe's lawyer, Mathis Grasel, pledged to appeal the verdict, which he described as "legally untenable."

'Wholly criminally responsible'

In her final speech in court last week, Zschaepe spoke of her "sincere regret" and repeated her claim that she did not know about the murders until after they happened, German media reported.

Zschaepe's current lawyers were calling for a maximum sentence of 10 years, while her first legal team, dropped partway through the trial, were seeking her immediate release, according to media reports of the trial.

The federal prosecutor had called for a life sentence, arguing that Zschaepe "is wholly criminally responsible for her actions" and describing her as an "ice-cold, calculating person," reports said.

Prison sentences were also handed down for four accomplices, according to the verdict.

Ralf W., convicted of being an accessory in the nine Ceska murders, was sentenced to 10 years in prison; Holger G. received a three-year sentence for supporting a terrorist organization; and Andre A. was sentenced to two years and six months for the same crime. Adolescent Carsten S. received a three-year sentence in a youth facility for aiding and abetting the Ceska murders.

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