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Baader-Meinhof woman faces new murder trial 33 years on

The retrial of a former terrorist may solve one of Germany's worst political killings

With her face hidden behind large sunglasses and her lips defiantly sealed, the former Red Army Faction terrorist Verena Becker went on trial in Stuttgart yesterday accused of complicity in one of the most devastating political murders carried out by the leftwing guerrilla group, more than three decades ago.

The trial has been billed as the last court case that will attempt to seek justice for the 30-plus victims of the decades-long campaign of bomb attacks, murders and hijackings waged by the anti-capitalist group, which started as the Baader-Meinhof gang in the late 1960s.

Becker, 58, is accused of involvement in the dramatic yet mysterious shooting of Siegfried Buback, West Germany's chief federal prosecutor, who was machine-gunned to death by a masked motorcycle pillion passenger as he was being chauffeured to work in Karlsruhe in 1977. His driver and a bodyguard were also killed. The assassination was one of the most shocking murders in the group's war against the former West German establishment, which it believed was a puppet of US imperialism run by former or latent Nazis. Its victims included bankers, judges and military figures.

Yesterday Becker, a small, frail-looking woman clad in white jeans and a beige jacket and pullover, sat between her lawyers in the same high-security court at Stammheim outside Stuttgart that she and many of her accomplices had faced trial in during the 1970s and 1980s. Her lawyers said she would refuse to speak during her trial.

State prosecutor Walter Hemberger formally charged her with having been part of a group that "maliciously killed three people out of base motives".

Becker, he said, had taken part in the murder because she was determined to execute the orders of the terror group's founder, Andreas Baader, who was then in prison.

The murder stunned Germany and prompted the authorities to introduce draconian security measures. However, despite protracted inquiries and the conviction of two of the group's members for their involvement in the attack, investigators have never been able to identify the motorcycle killer.

Becker is accused of helping to plan the murder but not of being the pillion passenger. Prosecutors say they hope the case will finally reveal the identity of the killer and clear up the last unsolved mystery concerning the group.

Members of the Buback family have conducted their own investigations and claim the authorities deliberately kept Becker's level of involvement in the Karlsruhe murder a secret after she agreed to work as an informant for state prosecutors following her release from prison in 1989. Michael Buback, the late chief prosecutor's son, claims there was a cover-up. "I am convinced that Becker is the petite woman who witnesses saw on the back of the motorcycle," he said.

The case has been further complicated by reports that Becker secretly met former group members in 2007 and signed a joint pledge to keep silent about details of the group's crimes.

Becker was arrested after a gun battle with police only a month after Buback's murder. She then served 12 years of a life sentence she was given for other crimes committed by the group, including murder.

However, her involvement in the Buback killing was never proved and the case against her was closed in 1980. She was formally pardoned and released by the former German president Richard von Weizäcker in 1989.

Her case was suddenly reopened in 2008 when newly developed forensic tests revealed traces of Becker's DNA on a letter the Red Army Faction had written after the Buback murder admitting responsibility for the attack.

Becker, who had spent the years since her release living in Berlin's elite Grunewald district, where she worked as a practitioner of alternative medicine, was re-arrested last year and charged with conspiracy to murder. If convicted she could face another life sentence. Her trial is expected to end on 21 December.