BERLIN — GERMANS incensed over the slow pace of legal action against communist officials in former East Germany have reason to be encouraged. Legal proceedings against these officials are picking up speed. Since reunification on Oct. 3, these cases have been removed from the hands of prosecutors of the communist era and taken over by Western-trained investigators.
People who live in eastern Germany are ``rightfully impatient, because the time up until Oct. 3 wasn't used,'' says Herbert Helmrich, chairman of the Justice Committee in the German Bundestag, or parliament. ``We must now act quickly and fairly, so that people trust'' the legal system once again, he warns.
Several events point to a quickening pace:
On Nov. 30, a warrant for the arrest of former head of state Erich Honecker was issued on grounds of manslaughter related to shootings at the Berlin Wall. (See related story.)
On Dec. 10, officials conducted a massive search of dwellings and offices associated with Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, the man entrusted with hard-currency transactions for the communist state. Berlin prosecutors have 50 accusations against him, including the siphoning of millions of marks for his personal use and the use of government officials.
In January, prosecutors expect to start the trial of Harry Tisch, former Politburo member and head of the massive workers' union in eastern Germany. He is charged with breach of trust and misuse of union assets.
Challenges are formidable
Although these signs show activity, the challenges before the new prosecutors are formidable.
There are not enough investigators to search through mountains of unorganized material. Key suspects are so old and ailing that they may not be able to stand trial. Even international politics plays a role, as Berlin prosecutors wait for Moscow to hand over Mr. Honecker, who is in a Soviet military hospital in Beelitz, southwest of the city.
Prosecutors now in charge lament the time lost and evidence destroyed while these cases languished under the care of the East German legal system, which remained intact (and to a large extent still exists) despite the 1989 revolution.
Aside from Bulgaria, Germany is the only country touched by last year's European revolutions in which prosecutors are taking legal action against a former head of state.
While their Eastern European neighbors arrest and try second-tier officials, mostly from the interior ministries and secret police, the Germans are throwing their net wider to include former Politburo members, alleged spies, and suspected terrorists.
A specially organized office in Berlin has meanwhile been given the task of organizing the masses of files from the old Ministry for State Security, or secret police. This office has also been instructed to search the files either to clear or substantiate accusations that key political figures, such as former East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maizi`ere, worked for the secret police.
In Germany, there is no centrally organized process directed at righting the injustices committed under the communists.
The federal prosecutor in Karlsruhe handles crimes against the country itself, and for that reason is dealing with issues such as East German espionage and alleged terrorists who were supposedly protected by East Germany. Ten such terrorists were arrested this year and as of Dec. 6, the federal prosecutor had issued 69 warrants for arrest in espionage cases, compared with 24 last year.
All crimes that aren't under the jurisdiction of the federal court, fall to the states, or L"ander, in which they were allegedly committed. For this reason, Berlin - which now encompasses the former East German capital - is the center of legal action for crimes committed against individuals and groups under the former communist regime.
Whether Berlin can move ``quickly,'' the way Helmrich envisions, remains to be seen. It certainly is moving faster than before reunification, when the government ``covered up'' evidence, says Jutta Burghart, a spokeswoman for Berlin's justice department.
But the Berlin prosecutor's office labors under a severe personnel shortage. A team of only seven prosecutors is handling the investigations relating to the former East German officials.
``We've only had access to the [East German] files for eight weeks!'' - that is, since reunification, says Ms. Burghart. The files are incomplete, massive, and unorganized.
New prosecutors on case
Since reunification, none of the East Berlin prosecutors have been rehired. That may mean a cleaner investigation, but it also means 60 percent more work for the city's western prosecutor office, according to Burghart. Meanwhile, the office is swamped with claims filed by individuals who feel they were wronged during the communist years.
The work of the team of seven centers on the investigation of Erich Honecker, Politburo member Erich Mielke (former minister for state security, i.e., the secret police), union leader Tisch, and currency-boss Schalck-Golodkowski - as well as workers, firms, and banks associated with the East German foreign trade organization which he directed, known as KoKo.
Investigators are frustrated by missing evidence. The massive search on Dec. 10 relating to Mr. Schalck-Golodkowski and KoKo, for instance, failed to turn up five suitcases, supposedly filled with files detailing KoKo transactions and holdings in foreign bank accounts.
Meanwhile, the other major suspects - Mr. Mielke, Mr. Tisch, and Honecker - are ill. Mielke (aged 83) and Tisch (aged 63) are both in a prison hospital in Berlin.
Honecker, who was ousted on Oct. 18, 1989, is 78 years old and has been living since April with his wife Margot in a two-room apartment in a Soviet military hospital on the outskirts of Berlin. Two days after the arrest warrant was issued, he entered the cardiac ward of the hospital due to high blood pressure. He has been operated on twice in the last two years for cancer.
The Berlin prosecutors want German doctors to determine whether Honecker can be held in the Moabit prison hospital in Berlin until he is formally indicted. (Ironically, he was imprisoned at Moabit in the Nazi era.) But the decision to deliver him to the Germans rests in Moscow's hands, says Nicolas Becker, one of Honecker's three defense attorneys.
Bonn has been urging Moscow to hand Honecker over. This puts the Soviets between a rock and a hard place says Mr. Becker.
Clearly, they are entering a new phase of friendship with the Germans. On the other hand, explains Becker, East Germany was the Warsaw Pact's front-line state.
``Many decisions were taken at least in coordination with Moscow. For the Russians, it's a very difficult situation because it seems that they do not intend to prosecute their own people.''