MUNICH (Reuters) - The lone surviving suspect in a neo-Nazi murder case that shocked Germany denied on Wednesday playing any role in a seven-year racist killing spree by two close friends but admitted feeling moral guilt for the deaths.
Breaking her two-and-a-half-year silence in a closely-watched trial in Munich, Beate Zschaepe said in a statement read out by her lawyer that Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, who are seen as the ringleaders of the small gang, only informed her about the murders after they had committed them.
Prosecutors accuse Zschaepe, 40, of being part of a covert cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU) that murdered eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007, as well as conducting two bombings in immigrant areas of Cologne and 15 bank robberies.
She faces life imprisonment if found guilty.
“I had nothing to do with the murders,” Zschaepe said in the statement. “I sincerely apologize to all of the victims of the criminal offences committed by Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt.”
Kerim Simsek, a victim’s relative, said this meant nothing as she denied everything and was “still ice-cold and brainless”.
Zschaepe had close relationships with Boehnhardt and Mundlos, who both committed suicide in 2011 when police discovered the gang by chance. She smiled as she entered the court wearing a dark suit with a pink and brown scarf under her curly hair.
The trio were based in eastern Germany, where right-wing violence grew after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the communist state.
An investigation released last year said local police had “massively underestimated” the risk of far-right violence and in a “fiasco” of missteps allowed the cell to go undetected for over a decade. The case sparked outrage across Germany.
Zschaepe denied being a member of the NSU and described feeling horrified and bewildered when Boehnhardt and Mundlos told her about some of the murders.
She considered informing the police at one point, she said, but the men threatened to commit suicide and she was financially dependent on them.
Zschaepe described distracting herself by playing computer games and drinking up to four bottles of sparkling wine a day.
“I feel morally guilty because I could not prevent ten murders and two bomb attacks,” she said.
“It was very clear to me that I couldn’t return to normal life,” she added. “They didn’t need me - I needed them.”
Politicians, commentators and experts in Germany were quick to criticize Zschaepe for trying to depict herself as a victim and for giving a statement they said was not credible.
Hajo Funke, an expert on the far right, said the closeness of Zschaepe’s relationship with Boehnhardt during the years that the killings took place meant her self-description as “a little housewife with no responsibility other than a moral one, which does not count from a legal perspective” was not convincing.
An editorial for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily said “the claim that she was a clueless woman at the side of two despicable murderers will hardly save her from the toughest sentence in criminal law” - a sentence to life imprisonment.
Sebastian Scharmer, a lawyer representing relatives of one of the murder victims, said Zschaepe’s statement was “constructed, without evidence and contradictory in itself”.
Zschaepe said the trio lived in constant fear of being discovered, forcing her to move homes several times. She said the men asked her to destroy all evidence of their crimes if they died and she agreed.
The existence of the NSU only came to light by chance in November 2011, when Mundlos and Boehnhardt committed suicide after a bungled bank robbery and torched their caravan.
When Zschaepe heard the news, she said she set fire to a flat she shared with the men, and fled with their cats and DVDs. She said she had wanted to warn a neighbor but no one answered when she rang the doorbell.
In the charred remnants of the caravan police found the gun used to murder all 10 victims. They also found a grotesque DVD presenting the NSU and claiming responsibility for the killings. In it the bodies of the murder victims are pictured while a cartoon Pink Panther tots up the number of dead.
Additional reporting and writing by Michelle Martin; Editing by Noah Barkin and Tom Heneghan