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Germany's most high-profile neo-Nazi trial begins Monday after 10 mostly racially motivated murders by a long-hidden far-right gang which Chancellor Angela Merkel has called a "disgrace" for the country.
The trial opens amid tight security in the southern city of Munich after a three-week delay over an outcry about media access which has further undermined Germany's image on top of security flaws exposed by the murder spree.
Supporters of an "Alliance against Nazi Terror and Racism" have vowed to demonstrate outside the courthouse while Beate Zschaepe, 38, appears in the dock on charges linked to the nationwide killings over a seven-year period.
She is the last surviving member of a neo-Nazi trio whose random discovery in late 2011 has forced the country to re-assess its image of having learnt the lessons of its Nazi past.
Germany has not seen a terror trial of this scale since members of the prominent left-wing militant group, the Red Army Faction, were sentenced 36 years ago.
Zschaepe is charged with complicity in the murders of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek immigrant and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007 as a founding member of the far-right gang dubbed the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
She is also accused of involvement in 15 armed robberies, arson and attempted murder in two bomb attacks.
Her lawyers deny she was directly involved in murder. Zschaepe has remained silent during her 18-month custody and has no plans to break her silence during the hearing which could last more than two years.
She faces life in prison if convicted. Four male alleged accomplices will also go on trial on lesser charges.
For the victims' families, the opening day of the highly-anticipated trial will be their first chance to see the accused in person, as they seek answers to why their loved ones were gunned down.
-- An 'emotional challenge' --
"It is an emotional challenge for them to follow this trial," the government's representative of the relatives, Barbara John, was quoted by local news agency DPA as saying.
Germans were stunned to learn in November 2011 that not foreign criminal gangs, as long suspected by police and the media, but home-grown racist killers were behind the unsolved murders.
Anger was stoked by revelations that the security forces failed to home in on the killers for more than a decade, and an admission that files had been shredded that could have helped the investigation.
Lawyers for some of the victims' relatives, who are co-plaintiffs, said, apart from a conviction, they wanted a clear naming of those who also bore responsibility.
They called in a joint statement for a discussion which seriously addresses the problem of "far-right violence and structural racism" in Germany and initiates necessary changes.
The case only came to light after Zschaepe's alleged NSU accomplices, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, were found shot dead in an apparent murder-suicide.
Zschaepe then allegedly blew up their shared home in eastern Germany.
A DVD with a film in the style of a "Pink Panther" cartoon, which the group had produced earlier claiming responsibility for the attacks, then emerged. Four days after the deaths, Zschaepe surrendered to police.
"I assure you that Germany will do everything necessary to shed light on the murders at all points and sentence the criminals to the punishments they deserve," Merkel said in an interview with Turkey's Hurriyet daily last week.
At a memorial to the victims she called the killings a "disgrace" for the country and apologised for the fact that suspicion had fallen on some victims' relatives, which she called "particularly tormenting".
Berlin last month apologised before the UN Human Rights Council for mistakes in probing the NSU murders which the government's top official on human rights described as "one of the worst human rights abuses in recent decades" in Germany.
As most of the victims originated from Turkey, the trial is expected to be intensely scrutinised beyond Germany's borders.
A controversy over the accreditation of journalists has overshadowed the run-up to the trial after the court initially failed to guarantee Turkish media seats when it handed out reserved spots on a first-come, first-served basis.
This strained German-Turkish ties and forced a last-minute postponement when Germany's top court ordered it to allocate seats to foreign reporters, leading to the final 50 media organisations being chosen in a lottery.
Turkish media now have four seats but several leading German newspapers missed out.
© 2013 AFP
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