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Neo-Nazis who killed five Turks are jailed

Skinheads in Germany's worst racist attack since the war are sentenced to at least 10 years, writes Imre Karacs
Bonn - A German court yesterday meted out stiff sentences to four skinheads convicted of carrying out what is regarded as the country's worst racist attack since the war. The torching ofan immigrant house in Solingen two years ago cost the lives of two women and three girls from a Turkish family, and sparked furious protests worldwide.

Three of those jailed, regarded as juveniles under the law, received the maximum 10 years, but the fourth defendant, who had faced life imprisonment, was given a 15-year sentence. That provoked renewed accusations that the courts remain soft on racist crime.

"The sentences show that Germany has not learned from its fascistic Hitler past," complained Suez Kolsuz, one of 200 Turks who had gathered outside the court in Dusseldorf to hear the verdict. "The judges should have sent out a signal that xenophobia and the murder of foreigners cannot go without proper punishment," said Kemal Kiran, chairman of a local Turkish organisation.

But throughout the 18-month trial, the prosecution's efforts to obtain maximum punishment were hampered by the lack of direct evidence. Their case rested on the testimony of two of the accused: Markus Gartmann, now 25, and Christian Reher, 19. But Gartmann, who at one point in the trial said: "I am infinitely ashamed of what we did," later retracted his confession, and Reher maintained he had acted alone. Reher gave a Nazi salute as he was being driven away after the sentencing.

Police failed to obtain physical evidence from the ruins of the house, and there were allegations from the defendants that the confessions had been obtained under duress. Gartmann contended at one point that the police had threatened to lock him up in a cell with Turks.

The two other defendants, Felix Kohnen, now 18, and Christian Buchholz, 22, pleaded not guilty throughout. "You swine. I am innocent," Kohnen shouted at the chief judge, Wolfgang Steffen, as the sentences were announced.

The house at number 81 Untere Werner Strasse in Solingen, a nondescript industrial town near Cologne, no longer stands. Only a small memorial nearby remains to testify to the horrors of the night two years ago when the home of the Genc family was consumed by the flames of racial hatred.

Although arguments about yesterday's verdict will go on - the three juveniles are appealing against the sentence - the basic facts are beyond dispute. All Germans accept that what happened in Solingen on the night of 29 May 1993 was the manifestation of a latent xenophobia which, despite the lessons of recent history, can still erupt without warning.

The immediate cause of outrage was almost trivial. Three skinheads out looking for a good time on Friday night tried to gatecrash a stag party, but were thrown out by the landlord of the pub and his two Yugoslav friends. In the youths' enraged minds the Yugoslavs became Turks - the lowest form of life in skinhead ideology - and they vowed revenge. They went to a petrol station, bought a can of fuel and walked up to number 81, the "Turks' house" opposite the home of one of the youths.

All 14 people in the house were asleep. The skinheads sneaked in, poured the petrol over a wooden chest and set fire to it with a rolled-up newspaper. They were seen by a neighbour as they fled. The police investigation later established that Gartmann belonged to the neo-Nazi organisation Deutsche Volks Union, and the others had all been neo-Nazi sympathisers.

"We are going to set the Turks' house on fire," one of them had vowed. The other members of the lynch party had kept swastikas and neo-Nazi literature at home.

Solingen came in the wake of a series of racist attacks in Germany, starting in the East after reunification and spreading slowly to the more prosperous western parts. Shocked Germans held candle-lit vigils and mass demonstrations throughout the country, and politicians were quick to condemn xenophobia; although Chancellor Helmut Kohl was conspicuously absent from the funeral of the Solingen victims.

Fears of the country being engulfed by resurgent xenophobia proved unjustified, however. Although violent acts against foreigners continue, especially in the East, there has been no repetition of Solingen, and the neo-Nazi tide appears to be ebbing. The Republican Party, the most prominent extreme right-wing group, did not even come close to gaining a seat in last year's parliamentary elections.

The Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, who had attended the burial of the five victims in Turkey, said yesterday the verdict had made clear that "our state cannot and will not accept violence, whoever it is from or directed against".