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Germany coup plot trial to begin amid high security

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The most spectacular of a trio of trials of a sprawling group of far-right conspiracists who plotted to violently overthrow the German state is to take place in Frankfurt on Tuesday amid high security and huge media interest.

On trial are the group’s alleged ringleader, a self-styled aristocrat estate agent known as Prince Heinrich XIII, his Russian girlfriend, and seven other founding members including a former policeman and a former judge who is now an MP for the far-right AfD party.

According to federal prosecutors, the group planned to storm the Reichstag in Berlin with armed support via its paramilitary wing, to arrest members of the Bundestag, and to parade a shackled Olaf Scholz on German television in the hope and expectation of winning ordinary Germans around to their coup.

In the event of the group’s success, Heinrich, 72, was expecting to become the new chancellor of Germany.

The group are part of a growing movement known as Reichsbürger, or citizens of the Reich – currently estimated by authorities to number 23,000 – who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the modern German state and would like German borders to be redrawn to pre-1918 lines.

The Frankfurt trial, taking place in a purpose-built metal container building on the outskirts of Germany’s financial capital, is the second involving the plotters.

A trial involving the group’s alleged military wing, of former special service soldiers, police, a metalworker and a plumber, started in Stuttgart at the end of April.

A third trial, in which the group’s so-called esoteric wing, including a doctor and a celebrity chef – all of whom were viewed as the group’s cabinet in waiting – is due to take place in Munich in June.

A total of 26 people are on trial – a 27th, a man in his 70s, died recently in hospital in Frankfurt – and the three cases are expected to go on for a year or more. Gundula Fehns-Böer, a spokesperson for Frankfurt’s regional court, said: “It’s a challenge for us all, but we’ll sit here for as long as we have to sit.”

The alleged plotters were arrested in December 2022, when heavily armed forces stormed houses, flats, offices and a remote hunting lodge. Investigators had surveilled the group in the previous few months. Among the arrests made were a leading member of the QAnon conspiracy theory organisation, a clairvoyant, a dentist and an amateur pilot.

There has been plenty of scoffing both at home and abroad over the group’s apparent harebrained ideas, with evidence allegedly showing that some plotters acting according to the position of the stars.

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Questions have been asked about whether the group truly had the ability to carry out its plans, with some accusing German authorities of exaggerating the claims of the danger the group posed.

But in their 621-page indictment, investigators have repeatedly stressed how well-organised the group was as well as how dangerous.

Police say the group had amassed more than half a million euros in gold and cash, as well as hundreds of firearms, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and explosives. They had acquired satellite phones to stay in touch after the paramilitary wing had carried out plans to cut off the national communications networks and electricity.

The group had waited for “day X” to start the coup, with one believing the signal was the death of Queen Elizabeth II. When police stormed the house of one member, he shot at them, injuring two police officers.

Sophie Schönberger, an expert in constitutional law at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, and co-author of the book Reichsbürger, said: “The chances of such a putsch actually succeeding were not all that high, but it could have unleashed a considerable level of violence and was capable of sending shock waves through the system.”

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