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Arson Plot Trial Opens in Germany

June 12, 1998

DOLGENBRODT, Germany (AP) _ Five men went on trial Friday in the 1992 arson of a home for refugees in this lakeside resort, a case that has raised new questions about the breadth of anti-foreigner sentiment in Germany.

While they and two others awaiting trial on perjury charges are the only ones charged, prosecutor Petra Marx says she believes most of Dolgenbrodt’s 300 residents share the blame.

``They might not have been actively involved,″ she said. ``But the atmosphere in the village was not the best at that time, everyone admits.″

The house burned to the ground a day before 86 Africans were to move in. Authorities quickly caught and convicted a teen-age neo-Nazi.

The extremist element allowed Germans to reassure themselves that the xenophobic sentiments behind the crime were confined to those on the fringes of society.

Then the arsonist started talking, and prosecutors uncovered what they say was a conspiracy involving not only disaffected youths but also otherwise upstanding citizens who wanted to keep the asylum-seekers out.

``The moral guilt that many in the village carry, that’s not something we can go after with legal means, but has to be dealt with in the political arena,″ the prosecutor said.

The trial is being held in Brandenburg state court in Frankfurt an der Oder. Four of the men are charged with complicity in the Nov. 1, 1992, crime and the fifth with being an accessory. Shortly after it began, the trial was recessed until Tuesday on a defense motion.

Karl Pfannenschwarz, mayor since 1993, denies that people in Dolgenbrodt, just southeast of Berlin, are racist. He says everyone has condemned the house-burning.

Then he tries to explain: The town was told initially that Gypsies were moving into the building, which had been a summer lodge for children during communist times, and feared a crime wave.

``People were afraid ... that their houses would be broken into,″ Pfannenschwarz said in an interview in his brick lakeshore villa.

Residents protested, collected signatures and pulled political strings in a vain attempt to stop the home from being plunked into their sylvan idyll.

The night before the asylum-seekers were to move in, the house burned to the ground.

Silvio Jaskowski, who was 18 at the time, was arrested in May 1993 and convicted in 1996 of setting the blaze. He was sentenced to two years on probation.

Jaskowski told prosecutors the townspeople had paid him to commit the crime, although residents denied that.

Last year, however, the alleged mastermind confessed.

Prosecutors say Thomas Oste, 41, who lived next door to the planned refugee home with his wife and two young children, told them he paid Jaskowski $1,100 to set the fire and another $5,700 later to keep quiet.

A friend of Jaskowski’s from nearby Koenigs Wusterhausen, Renato Paschke, 27, allegedly helped him set the fire.

Prosecutors say part of the money came from a neighbor, electrician Gerd Graefen, who had land he wanted to sell and was afraid the refugees’ presence would lower property values.

Hans-Juergen Schmidt, 49, allegedly supplied heating oil for the Molotov cocktails; and his stepson, Marco Schmidt, 25, allegedly drove Jaskowski to pick up his money.

All five now being tried had denied any involvement during Jaskowski’s original trial.

The 86 Africans who were to be housed in Dolgenbrodt were sent elsewhere. The rubble was cleared out immediately and today not a trace of the building or the inferno can be seen on the wooded, overgrown lot.

``So their measures were successful, you have to say,″ Marx said wryly. ``No asylum-seekers ever came there.″