German coup plot: Who are the alleged ringleaders?

Policemen stand guard in front of a hall set up as a courtroom as judge and former MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany Birgit Malsack-Winkemann (4th L) and other defendants (not in picture) arrive for the trial against a prince, a former MP and ex-army officers accused of masterminding a conspiracy theory-driven plot to attack the German parliament and topple the government, on May 21, 2024 in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. In one of the biggest cases heard by German courts in decades, prosecutors accuse the group of preparing a "treasonous undertaking" to storm the Bundestag (German parliament) and take MPs hostage. The proceedings at the regional court in Frankfurt are the second of three trials against defendants linked to the putsch plan. Eight suspected members of the coup plot will take the stand in Frankfurt, as well as one woman accused of supporting their efforts to overthrow Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)

The prime suspects from a group of conspiracy theorists accused of plotting to overthrow the German government went on trial in Frankfurt on Tuesday.

These are the group's alleged ringleaders:

- The 'prince' -

Aristocrat Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss is said to have been the main leader of the coup plot and was supposed to be installed as Germany's new head of state if the bizarre plan had succeeded.

Reuss, 72, is a descendant of a noble family that once ruled over large swathes of the eastern German region of Thuringia.

Germany's nobility was abolished in 1919 but many descendants of noble families have kept their titles through surnames that can be passed down the generations.

Reuss's name in German is "Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss", so "Prince Reuss" is his surname.

One of six children in his family, Reuss trained as an engineer but made his living in real estate.

He lives in Frankfurt but also owns a castle in Bad Lobenstein in Thuringia.

Reuss is accused of trying to make contact with Russia ahead of the planned coup through his Russian partner, named as Vitalia B. -- also on trial in Frankfurt for supporting the plot.

Other descendants of the noble family have distanced themselves from Reuss, and the current head of the family told AFP last year that he was seen as the "black sheep".

Reuss had previously attracted attention with his oddball theories.

In a rambling speech to a conference in Zurich in 2019, he referred to the "so-called Federal Republic of Germany" and claimed the country had been run by the Allies since the end of World War II.

- The judge -

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a judge and former member of parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, had been tapped to be the group's justice minister.

Investigators believe the 59-year-old had passed on her inside knowledge of the German parliament to help the group plan an armed attack on the Bundestag building.

Police who raided her apartment found several weapons as well as large stocks of food, according to German media.

Born in Darmstadt in central Germany, Malsack-Winkemann studied law and began working as a judge in Berlin in 1993.

The divorced mother of two was an MP from 2017 to 2021.

According to Die Zeit newspaper, she employed an astrologer for a period during her time in office -- also among the coup plot suspects.

She then returned to working as a judge in Berlin in March 2022, despite attempts by the local government to force her into early retirement due to concerns over her impartiality.

During the 2017 election campaign, Malsack-Winkemann spoke out in favour of closing Germany's borders to migrants and vowed to "fight for our country".

- The army commander -

Ruediger von Pescatore, 70, is a former German army commander who was intended to be in charge of the military after the coup.

Von Pescatore began his career as a paratrooper before progressing to become a lieutenant colonel and then commander of the paratrooper battalion based in the southern town of Calw.

According to Die Zeit, his time in the army was marked by behaviour such as teaching his troops old Nazi songs and once getting an army helicopter to drop him off at home for a coffee.

But Pescatore's military career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s when he was found guilty of misappropriating weapons from old army stocks.

He received a suspended sentence, was expelled from the army and emigrated with his family to Brazil, eventually returning to Germany in 2021, according to Die Zeit.

- Other plotters -

Also on trial in Frankfurt are three other men who had been tapped for senior post-coup military roles: Maximilian Eder, Michael Fritsch and Peter Woerner.

Eder, a former army colonel, appeared in court in Munich last month on four charges of driving without a licence and under the influence of alcohol.

Fritsch is a former police officer from Hanover who was suspended in 2020 after allegedly taking part in demonstrations against Covid regulations.

Woerner is a former soldier in the KSK special forces who had been living in Norway and running "survival" courses, according to the Bild daily.

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