Neo-Nazi crime enriches far-right lawyers

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Germany has stepped up the battle against the rise in neo-Nazi violence by unveiling a witness-protection scheme for defectors. It follows some startlingly lenient sentences as courts are increasingly confronted with vanishing evidence and outfoxed by a circle of far-right lawyers.

Germany has stepped up the battle against the rise in neo-Nazi violence by unveiling a witness-protection scheme for defectors. It follows some startlingly lenient sentences as courts are increasingly confronted with vanishing evidence and outfoxed by a circle of far-right lawyers.

Politicians were shocked last month when several youths convicted over the death of an Algerian refugee walked free from an east German courtroom after one of the longest trials in recent history.

Eleven skinheads had been accused of chasing 28-year-old Farid Guendoul to his death in the town of Guben in February 1999. The victim ran into a glass door while trying to escape and bled to death.

Twenty-one months later, after many defence motions, challenges and interruptions, three ringleaders received sentences of up to three years. Six others of the mob were given suspended sentences. Two were found not guilty. One defendant had beaten up a foreigner while awaiting the verdict. Wolfgang Thierse, Speaker of the Bundestag, declared the trial a "scandal".

Wolfram Nahrath, one of the lawyers involved with the case, is also dissatisfied with the outcome. His client, Stefan Hintze, 17, was given an 18-month suspended sentence. Though he has no quibble with the sentence, Mr Nahrath is appealing. "I resent the fact that he was convicted for manslaughter," he explained.

Mr Nahrath has been practising law for only four years, but has already established a reputation in his chosen field, which he describes as "political crime". "I get calls from all over Germany," he boasted.

His dedication to the cause is beyond question. He describes himself as a "national German". He agreed to an interview, at his favourite pizzeria, on condition that no questions would be asked about his past activities. No need: they are well documented.

Now 37, Mr Nahrath was the last Bundesführer of the Wiking Jugend (Viking Youth), the organisation set up in 1952 to succeed the Hitler Youth. He was the third-generation Führer, after his grandfather, who was among the founders, and his father, Wolfgang, a prominent far-right politician.

The Wiking Jugend was outlawed six years ago after being declared a neo-Nazi terrorist organisation. Several of its functionaries had already been jailed for attempted murder, extortion, bank robberies and bomb attacks. Mr Nahrath then joined the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which the government is trying to ban.

A father of five, he earns his living in the booming business of far-right crime, his fees paid by the taxpayer. "I have not become rich, but the state's determination to pursue every petty affair ensures that I have enough work," he said.

In the Guben trial, fate brought him face to face with a presiding judge named Joachim Dönitz, whom Mr Nahrath thinks is related to Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who signed Germany's surrender in 1945. But nostalgic sentiments were not allowed to get in the way of the common strategy designed to scupper Mr Dönitz's work.

Twenty-two lawyers, two per defendant, plotted to string out the trial as long as possible. Mr Nahrath's best move was a successful motion to dismiss one of the judges on the grounds that he was biased.

"I did not contribute to all the delays," he said. Sometimes his client, or one of the other defendants, would be too ill, hungover or sleepy to follow proceedings. On such days the court had to be adjourned. The defendants found it all rather amusing.

The lawyers worked to a set choreography. Every line of possible defence is catalogued by the German Legal Bureau, a faceless organisation which co-ordinates the far right's legal response nationwide. Contactable by e-mail or via PO boxes, it dispenses advice and puts offenders in touch with suitably qualified lawyers.

It has an impressive website and list of pamphlets to help neo-Nazis. It includes hints on how to behave in court - anti-Semitic statements will not help your case - and what one can wear or say in public: a youth wearing a swastika belt-buckle was recently acquitted because it had been concealed under his jumper. Germany forbids Nazi symbols in public.

An attempt by this correspondent to contact the bureau brought a swift e-mail rebuke: "You are but a Hungarian."

The leading lights of these lawyers are hardly a secret, though. One of the most prominent is Jürgen Rieger of Hamburg, cleared last month of a charge of Holocaust denial. In a trial of neo-Nazis in 1996, he sought to prove that no Jews had been gassed in Auschwitz. While that would normally be a crime, a federal court ruled this year that lawyers were entitled to certain liberties in the pursuit of their profession.

Another notable is Ludwig Bock from Mannheim, fined last year for incitement to racial hatred.

"It's annoying, but what can one do?" asked Anton Braun of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers, when asked if such persons should be allowed to practise. Lawyers, he added, could be struck off only for very serious crimes, such as murder or perjury. If they stick to these rules, Mr Nahrath and his colleagues can look forward to a long and profitable career.

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