BONN — FORMER East German leader Erich Honecker is a free man.
Yesterday, a Berlin court cleared the last barrier to Mr. Honecker's release from prison, lifting an imprisonment warrant and abandoning its prosecution of him for breach of trust and embezzlement.
The court yesterday based its decision on Honecker's ill health, saying there was no point proceeding further if the 80-year old, as doctors maintain, wouldn't survive court proceedings.
The reasoning was similar to that of Berlin's Constitutional Court, which on Tuesday discontinued the trial against Honecker that had been running since November.
In the trial, billed as the most important court case since the Nuremburg war crimes trials, Honecker faced manslaughter charges relating to 13 killings of East Germans trying to escape westward over the Berlin Wall.
The Constitutional Court said Tuesday it based its decision not only on health, but also on humanitarian grounds. "It violates human rights," the Constitutional Court said, to keep a man in jail who is diagnosed as having an incurable illness.
Relatives of the 13 victims at the Wall have appealed to the federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe to overturn the Berlin courts' decisions.
GERMANS have reacted to the cases' dismissal either with sympathy or with indignation.
Karin Gueffroy, mother of the last person killed at the Berlin Wall, said in a television interview, that Honecker is now "seeking from the court the humanity that he formerly didn't grant to others." Her son, Chris Gueffroy, was killed in February 1989, and his death has become a virtual symbol of the East German regime's brutality.
In an opinion piece published in the conservative daily Die Welt yesterday, Enno von Loewenstern wrote: "Every day shedding light on his terror regime [would have been] a day gained."
Angela Merkel, a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet and an east German, regrets the trial was not concluded. "Personally, I'm very disappointed," she said in a television interview. Ms. Merkel said the decision will only strengthen the impression among victims of the East German Communist regime "that a state under the rule of law is not capable of working out injustice."
On the other side of the argument stands Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, a former justice minister and a man closely involved in the July extradition of Honecker from Moscow, where he had fled from the German legal system. Mr. Kinkel called the proceedings against Honecker "a model example" which society "can be proud of."
Rainer Eppelmann, himself a victim of the hated East German secret police and now a member of the Bundestag, said "There can't be especially bad treatment for Erich Honecker."
In a television interview he added: "The basic principle of a state under the rule of law is that the same law applies equally to all people."
This apparently is the position of many east Germans who have moved on to burning new concerns, like joblessness. An opinion poll by the Infas Institute last week showed the number of east Germans opposing the Honecker trial had grown from 14 percent in 1991 to 39 percent last month. Nearly two-thirds of the easterners said Honecker's trial had become a "show trial."
But Honecker himself sometimes played the showman during his trial. Most of the time alert, he would raise his fist in Communist solidarity with supporters in and outside the courtroom. In a long speech before the court last month, Honecker said that although he accepted "political responsibility" for the deaths at the Wall, he did not accept "legal or moral" guilt. He was unrepentant in his defense of the East German communist state.
At press time, Honecker was expected to leave Berlin yesterday and continue on to Chile to join his wife and daughter. According to media reports, he's traveling with a full wallet: 500,000 deutsche marks ($306,700) raised by supporters.