Court to hand down last Berlin Wall verdict
8 November 2004 , BERLIN - German prosecutors expect to this week wrap up 15 years of work bringing East German politicians and border guards to justice for their shoot-on-sight rule on the Berlin Wall and the border between former East and West Germany. The Berlin court handling the cases is scheduled to hand down its final verdict on Tuesday, the anniversary of the 9 November 1989 opening of the Cold War barrier when the formerly grim guards waved huge crowds through with bemused smiles. No other homicid
8 November 2004
BERLIN - German prosecutors expect to this week wrap up 15 years of work bringing East German politicians and border guards to justice for their shoot-on-sight rule on the Berlin Wall and the border between former East and West Germany.
The Berlin court handling the cases is scheduled to hand down its final verdict on Tuesday, the anniversary of the 9 November 1989 opening of the Cold War barrier when the formerly grim guards waved huge crowds through with bemused smiles.
No other homicide indictments are pending following this week's Berlin state court judgement on four former border officers who were responsible for laying mines on the border between the two Germanys.
While many former communist nations have quietly put the past behind them, German prosecutors were determined to punish individuals linked to the worst crimes of the East German communist regime.
Court officials in Berlin say 128 persons have been convicted, beginning in 1991 with the guards who shot dead Chris Gueffroy, the last person killed while trying to escape from East Germany.
The youngest victim named in an indictment was a boy aged 10 killed in March 1966 and the court specialising in the cases, in the Berlin district of Moabit, has reviewed 270 such killings in all.
Bernhard Jahntz, a senior prosecutor, is frustrated at the light sentences handed down in the cases.
"It was as if the lives of the individual victims were not so important," he complained in an interview.
Jahntz demanded 11 years' jail for Egon Krenz, the senior communist official who ended his career as a brief East German president and party chief, but judges settled on just six and a half years. Krenz was freed on parole for good behaviour at the end of last year.
"Still, the most important thing is that these crimes were declared to be crimes," said the prosecutor.
Prosecutors investigated 6,000 incidents and orders, leading to a total of 112 cases in Berlin. The major trials, of the communist party politburo, of the East German national security council and of the border guard command, each lasted several months.
The historic trial of former East German leader Erich Honecker and five other top communists failed to secure the hoped-for convictions. Soon after the trial began in November 1992, Honecker and the head of the former Stasi secret police said they were too sick to be tried.
Honecker, who was suffering from cancer, made a defiant statement to the court accepting political responsibility for the killings at the Wall, but denying any legal or even moral guilt.
A superior court stopped the case because of his health, and he died in May 1994 in Chile, convinced to the last he had been right. Stasi chief Erich Mielke also died before judges could convict and sentence him.
The longest sentence handed down, seven and a half years, was for the former East German defence minister, Heinz Kessler.
A former overall commander of the border guard, Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten, received six years, but remains unapologetic to this day. Aged 73, he has been in the public gallery at the final trial of his former men and calls their prosecution "a disgrace".
Krenz has also served out his term but has refused to recognise his guilt, saying, "I'm not a killer."
The Moabit court has only identified a single defendant who knew the policy was wrong and tried to get fellow communists to change it.
Trying Herbert Haeber, a former party official dealing with the West, the court found in May this year that he had suffered serious disadvantages for voicing his misgivings about shoot-to-kill when the policy was affirmed in the party's central committee.
He was convicted on three counts of incitement to kill those trying to escape, but walked free without penalty.
The February 1989 death of the last Berlin Wall victim, Gueffroy, 20, was the specimen case on which many of the higher-ups, including Krenz, were convicted.
The men who actually pulled the triggers proved harder to jail. Many claimed they deliberately shot off target. The very first sentence, of three and a half years for a young guard who shot dead an escaper, was overturned on appeal to Germany's high court.
The Berlin court thereafter had to follow high court sentencing guidelines, meaning 77 of the 80 enlisted guards who were convicted were able to walk free with suspended prison terms.
Subject: German news