German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen during a commemorative event for victims of right-wing extremist violence, at the Concert House in Berlin in February 2012. Before 1,200 guests, Merkel said, in reference to the NSU: ‘The murders of the Thuringian terror cell were an attack on our country. They have brought shame upon our country.’
(Report: Ioannis Papadopoulos and Stavros Tzima, Kathimerini, 22/7/2016)
“Authorities tried to present the victims as criminals to the public from the very beginning. Their families were treated like suspects.”
Eleven years have passed since Greek locksmith Theodoros Voulgaridis was gunned down at work in Munich and his ex-wife, Yvonne Voulgaridis, is still waiting for justice.
“I was pushed by interrogators to concede that I had murdered my husband myself. German media picked up the accusations and rumors that were spread by the authorities, so that we were discredited in our social environment. As a result, I lost my job and the children were subject to exclusion at school,” she says. “We will not rest before all the responsible persons, including those working for the authorities, are brought to justice.”
According to the Munich Prosecutor’s Office, on the afternoon of June 15, 2005, Uwe Boehnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, both members of neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground (NSU), entered Voulgaridis’s key shop and executed him with three bullets to the head. The murder weapon was a Ceska 83 pistol and had already been used in the still-unsolved murders of six Turkish men.
Until 2011, investigations were centered on the victims’ friends and family or attributed to Turkish organized crime rings. No one investigated the possibility that these were racially motivated crimes that could be linked to neo-Nazis.
Yvonne Voulgaridis was put through regular interrogation sessions that lasted three or four hours each. Her 15-year-old daughter was asked whether her father was a drug dealer or had sexually abused her.
“Similar things happened to wives and relatives of other victims as well,” says Yvonne Voulgaridis, referring to other crimes that are now being attributed to the NSU. These include the murders of eight Turkish men between 2000 and 2006, a pipe bomb placed in a part of Cologne with a large Turkish presence in 2004 that left dozens injured, and the killing of a policewoman in 2007.
“I believe the serial killings would not have been possible to that extent if the victims had been German,” says Yvonne Voulgaridis. “The police and secret services had information about the real perpetrators that was simply ignored. On the other hand, they knew very well that the victims were ordinary hardworking men and not criminals. The public was deliberately deceived for political reasons,” she adds.
Yvonne Voulgaridis stopped being a suspect when the NSU’s activities were uncovered and one of its three principal members, Beate Zschaepe, was arrested in 2011 after her two alleged partners committed suicide. Her trial began three years later and today is still ongoing even though it had initially been slated to finish in 2015.
“The trial is taking so much time because the court has to evaluate 10 different cases of murder, two bomb attacks and robberies that took place over more than a decade. While this alone is a real challenge for the involved parties, since most of the defendants decided to remain silent, there are persistent efforts by their lawyers to sabotage the proceedings. Apart from that, some authorities are still refusing to assist the process and are holding back information, documents and necessary approvals,” says Yavuz Narin, the lawyer representing Yvonne Voulgaridis.
Narin does not believe that the German authorities were merely mistaken in their initial lines of investigation.
“Today we know that there had obviously not been that many ‘mistakes.’ German authorities, police and intelligence, had much more information about the so-called NSU than they were ready to admit. False accusations against the victims were spread deliberately while available information about the real murderers was deliberately held back by authorities. We even found out that intelligence services prevented police from arresting the terrorists on many occasions. The ongoing trial – as well as different investigation committees – helps us to understand what has happened. On the other hand, we still have no clue how this could happen,” he argues.
The NSU had initially been presented as an isolated gang made up of Zschaepe, Boehnhardt and Mundlos (the suicide of the latter two in 2011 led to the uncovering of the organization).
According to Narin, since the start of the trial, an abundance of evidence has come to light revealing “a large network of neo-Nazis who supported the NSU by supplying them with weapons, money, false documents, hideouts and explosives.
“We also found out that some of the most important supporters were employed as informers for German intelligence services and police. We know that those informers were highly paid by authorities to report on what was going on among neo-Nazi extremists. Unfortunately, though, intelligence services shredded most of the reports and documents immediately after the NSU was exposed. Some of the informers have already died under obscure circumstances, just before we were supposed to hear them in court. Others were given new identities and live in different countries now, unattainable to the court.”
Theodoros Voulgaridis, from Serres in northern Greece, had lived in Munich for 32 years when he was killed and was married to his German wife Yvonne for 20 years before they divorced. They had two daughters, aged 15 and 18 at the time of the murder.
“We had high expectations at the beginning [of the trial],” says Yvonne Voulgaridis. “Sadly we have noticed that authorities are not just failing to investigate the matter; they are also preventing the efforts of our lawyers – and journalists – to uncover the backgrounds of the terrorist group,” she says.
A recent report by Amnesty International shows a disturbing spike in racially motivated violence in Germany. In 2015, violent crimes against racial, ethnic and religious minorities rose 87 percent compared with 2013. In the same report, titled “Living in Insecurity: How Germany is Failing Victims of Racist Violence” and published in June, Amnesty stresses in regard to the murders of eight Turkish men and Voulgaridis, that “several police forces failed to take into account and effectively investigate aspects of the murders pointing to a discriminatory motive.”
“Racism still is an issue in Germany and it should not be underestimated again,” says Yvonne Voulgaridis.
Pondering the next move
Victims and relatives of victims of neo-Nazi violence met on June 5 at a restaurant on Keupstrasse in Cologne, where on June 9, 2004 the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) allegedly placed a nail bomb on a bicycle outside a Turkish barbershop and detonated it by remote control, injuring 22 Turks. It is believed to have been the first in a macabre chain of violent, often fatal, attacks against immigrants, among them Greek Theodoros Voulgaridis.
Three years have passed since the start of the biggest trial in German history against Nazi defendants after Nuremberg. Standing in the dock are the chief suspect, Beate Zschaepe (who, however, has refused to speak), as well as four accomplices.
Despite the drawn-out trial process, Voulgaridis’s brother Gavriil, who lives in Munich and has been observing the proceedings closely, is optimistic.
“We have a long way to go but I am optimistic that something will eventually come of it,” he tells Kathimerini. “It’s too big to cover up and, anyway, this would not be in the interest of the German state.”
At the Cologne dinner, Gavriil Voulgaridis was accompanied by Greek priest Apostolos Malamousis, who was one of the first people called to the scene of the murder and conducted a blessing while the German police was still there.
“We’ve been talking with the relatives of other victims about our next move after the trial is over,” says Voulgaridis. “Some have even proposed seeking damages from the federal state. I have to stress that the Bavarian government has done a lot to help the relatives of the victims, to support us.”