BONN — LEGAL efforts to right the wrongs committed in communist East Germany could get a boost if the Soviet Union delivers former East German leader Erich Honecker to German authorities, as Bonn has once again demanded.Mr. Honecker is wanted for manslaughter for instigating shootings at the Berlin Wall. Last March, with a warrant out for his arrest, Honecker was spirited away from a Soviet military hospital outside Berlin to the Soviet Union. So far, investigation and prosecution of former communist officials in Germany have proceeded at a snail's pace. The accused claim to be too old, ill, or senile to stand trial. There are not enough untainted prosecutors, attorneys, and legal aides to sift through 40 years of disorganized files for evidence and bring cases to trial. Because the alleged crimes were committed in East Germany, it is East German law which applies to the cases. What might have been considered a crime in West Germany was not ne cessarily so in East Germany. These explanations, however, seem poor excuses to the more than 4,000 people who have filed suit in Berlin for wrongs suffered under the communist regime. "For many citizens, it's going way too slowly," says Jutta Burghart, spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Berlin, where cases against the former East German central government are being investigated. Only last week, the trial of the man who used to head the East German Stasi secret police, Erich Mielke, was canceled when a court ruled that he was too senile to face cross-examination. Mr. Mielke is 83 years old.
First conviction made In June, the first conviction was handed down to a former communist boss, Harry Tisch - but he was freed because he had already served out his sentence in pretrial detention. Meanwhile, investigators have been unable to bring charges against Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, the man who managed hard currency for East Germany. Every week the press reports new crimes he allegedly committed - as well as his shady dealings with respected West German politicians - but as of yet, there have been no indictments. Whether Honecker will be delivered to Germany is unclear. After the Soviet coup, conflicting reports came from the Russian parliament: first that Honecker would certainly be handed over, and then that he might not be. Bonn last week demanded Honecker's immediate extradition. Should he be returned, Ms. Burghart says, he will be arrested. Honecker's lawyers plan to ask for an exemption from trial because of the former leader's ailing health and age (79), says Wolfgang Ziegler, one of Honecker's three defense attorneys. Since mid-1989, Honecker had two operations for cancer in East Germany, says Mr. Ziegler, who has corresponded with Honecker. "I don't think his health is essentially any better," Ziegler adds. But the state prosecutor in Berlin, Dieter Neumann, says neither health nor age are factors. In a newspaper interview last week, the prosecutor said he had seen Honecker in a recent television interview and nothing indicated he is unfit to stand trial. Honecker is wanted for his role in the deaths of East Germans at the Berlin Wall as they were trying to escape. Since 1961, when the Wall went up, 78 people have died there and 123 along the German-German border. Bringing the issue of border shootings to the courtroom is the Berlin prosecutor's "highest priority," says Burghart. Yesterday, the trial of four former border guards opened in Berlin. The guards are accused of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. Although prosecutors tried to have the cases dismissed on the grounds the guards were only following orders, a judge ruled the trials will continue. Some 200 criminal investigations of former East German border guards have so far been launched, according t o press reports.
Call for extradition While Bonn has renewed its demand for the extradition of Honecker, it says it is legally unable to request the same for East Germany's former chief of espionage of 33 years, Markus Wolf, who is also hiding out in the Soviet Union and is accused of espionage and treason. Trying former East German spies is politically and legally controversial in Germany today. A trial of five former espionage officials, including the last chief of East German espionage, has been put on hold until the Federal Constitutional Court, the highest in the land, rules on the legality of trying former spies. It is argued that it is unfair to try former East Germans for the kind of work still being done by west German spies. Some are calling for amnesty for the ex-spies. In July, however, Germany's second highest court, the Federal High Court, ruled that such trials were legal and that East German spies can't be compared with west German spies, because East German espionage was offensive while West German espionage is defensive. Justice Minister Klaus Kinkel admits that bringing the former East German leadership to justice will be difficult. He has emphasized that the former leaders are not only old and ill, but that they acted collectively - a difficulty because only individuals, and not political bodies can be tried in Germany. But another fundamental factor, lack of manpower, is also holding up prosecution. All over east Germany, judges and prosecutors are being reviewed for their cooperation with the communist regime. Although 1,000 west German judges and prosecutors and 500 legal aids will have been dispatched to east Germany by the end of this year, the legal system there is still stopped up. Only one senior Stasi official outside the East Berlin central government has been convicted so far. But he was convicted on minor charges of financial fraud in relation to a bungalow which he bought at a rock-bottom price - not because of phone tapping, torture of prisoners, or shootings at the border. Investigating these allegations would have taken too long and required a larger staff, says Gerrit Schwarz, spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Schwerin, where the trial concluded last week. "The financial thing," he says, "was simply the fastest to investigate."