A German court on Wednesday convicted a 28-year-old woman and three accomplices of organizing and carrying out brutal attacks against people they perceived to be neo-Nazis, in what experts have described as an uncommon case of left-wing extremist violence in the country.
The woman, who in accordance with Germany’s strict privacy laws was identified only as Lina E., was sentenced to five years and three months in prison by a court in Dresden, in eastern Germany for membership in a criminal association, several counts of assault, causing damage to property, as well as other lesser charges.
Three other members of the group — Lennart A., 28; Jannis R., 37; and Philipp M., 28 — received prison sentences ranging from two years and five months to three years and two months for charges including membership or support of a criminal gang, assault and abetting assault.
Nancy Faeser, the country’s interior minister, said in a statement after the verdict that “in a democratic constitutional state, there must be no room for vigilante justice.” She added, “No objective justifies political violence.”
The judge, Hans Schlüter-Staats, announced that Lina E. would be released from jail until possible appeals were played out and she had to start her prison sentence. Supporters in the courtroom, who had protested so loudly when the initial sentence was announced that the judge called a 15-minute recess, rejoiced that she would be free for a time. The three co-defendants were not in custody during the trial.
Hours after the verdict was announced, there were clashes, some violent, between left-wing protesters and the police in Berlin; Leipzig, where Lina E. lived; and other cities. Far-left activists also had announced that demonstrations would be held in Leipzig on Saturday.
The case has been widely watched in Germany, where the authorities have long been accused of failing to prosecute or slow-walking the prosecution of figures tied to right-wing attacks, and especially in the east of the country, where the dominance of far-right groups has long overshadowed a smaller and apparently also violence-prone far-left scene. The trial also forced progressives to consider how far the fight against right-wing extremism should go, experts say.
At the heart of the case were six attacks that prosecutors said the loose, nameless group had planned and carried out from 2018 to 2020. Among those beaten by the masked attackers was a right-wing extremist and martial-arts fighter who himself is in jail awaiting trial for his role leading a violent right-wing group; men returning from a far-right rally in Dresden; and a man wearing a hat from a right-wing clothing company, who later denied being a neo-Nazi.
Some of the victims ended up in the hospital with broken bones. One testified that he was traumatized for life. There were 13 known victims in all, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said that Lina E. had led the group with her partner, who is still wanted by the authorities.
Investigators homed in on Lina E., who was then a student, after a second attack on the extremist martial-arts fighter in 2019. After the attack, the police stopped a speeding VW Golf with stolen plates; inside, they found the original plates, which showed that it was registered to Lina E.’s mother. From there, the police connected Lina E. to other attacks through witness testimony, video, DNA evidence and a photo of a crime scene found in a camera at her home.
She was arrested in November 2020 at her home in Leipzig, in Saxony State in northeastern Germany, and charged with causing bodily harm and organizing a criminal gang.
The case had captured the public’s imagination ever since she stepped off a police helicopter surrounded by heavily armed officers for her arraignment in Karlsruhe, the seat of Germany’s national prosecutors. She was vilified as a violent criminal by some and celebrated as a vigilante by others. “Free Lina E.” graffiti popped up in the one neighborhood of Leipzig. Some stores put out collection boxes to help her with defense costs.
Hajo Funke, an expert on the far right, said the violence the left-wing group was accused of was unusual in eastern Germany, where the far right tended to be the source of brutality in public spaces.
“Especially in Saxony, but also in other states in the east, the far right has a tactical dominance against left-wing actors and even democratic-minded citizens in daily situations,” Mr. Funke said. “If you are active doing something they don’t like, you are actually in danger.”
In 2022, the German police attributed 23,493 registered crimes to the far right in the country. In the same year, 6,976 crimes were attributed to the far left, the lowest number in a decade.
Because of its Nazi past, Germany has strict laws to fight fascism, banning Nazi symbols and speech. Shortly after the country’s reunification three decades ago, neo-Nazis unleashed a wave of violence on migrants, targeting asylum centers, especially in the east. Although the violence has subsided, the political fortunes of the right have grown. Last year, a far-right group was accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
A parliamentary committee report published in 2013 found that Germany’s police and security services had deeply rooted prejudices that had allowed a neo-Nazi cell to carry out violent attacks — killings, robberies and bombings — against immigrants for more than a decade without being detected.
The trial of Lina E. and her group unfolded over nearly 100 days under high security.The prosecutors’ star witness was a kindergarten teacher and former associate of the group, Johannes D., 30, who testified about the group’s training and organization, and admitted being present for at least one attack as a stakeout. (A court gave him a suspended sentence for his part in the crime.)
On the final day of the trial this month, Lina. E. did not insist on her innocence or explain her motives, but thanked her family and those who had written to her and visited her in jail.
Even amid calls for protests, Alexander Deycke, who studies the far left at the University of Göttingen, said that within the left-wing community, the verdict might lead to soul-searching. “It’s a fundamental contradiction when you want a violence-free, domination-free society on the one hand, but you are unwilling to exclude violence on the way to getting there,” he said.
Dirk Münster, a police officer who runs the state’s special unit on far-left crimes and oversaw the investigation of Lina E.’s group, said that a clear guilty verdict was important.
“It has a signaling effect,” he said before the verdict. “We have to recognize that we have a real problem and not one that can be discussed away.”
Many Germans, he said, refused to see left-wing violence as a problem because they generally sympathized with the fight against fascism. “We are not fighting against left-wing beliefs,” he said. “We are working against actual criminal violence.”