IN the first trial of its kind, two former East German border guards were convicted yesterday in the shooting death of Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old waiter who was sprayed with bullets as he tried to escape to West Berlin in February 1989.
He was the last of more than 200 people killed while trying to cross the heavily guarded border that separated East from West Germany for 28 years.
Ingo Heinrich was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three and one-half years in prison. Andreas Kuhnpast received a two-year suspended sentence for attempted manslaughter. Two other former border guards standing trial, Mike Schmidt and Peter Schmett, were acquitted. The four had faced maximum sentences of life imprisonment.
During the trial, which began in September, the defense did not dispute that the defendants had fired the shots which killed Mr. Gueffroy and injured his friend, Christian Gaudian. The defense's chief argument was that the border guards were acting according to East German law and were dutifully following orders.
Since the legal norm is to prosecute cases according to the law of the land that exists at the time of an alleged crime, the defense argued that the prosecution had no case. "What was right then, can't be wrong now," defense attorney Rolf Bossi said.
But Berlin Regional Court Chief Judge Theodor Seidel, who pronounced the sentences yesterday, did not see it that way. Killing people to stop them from leaving a country violates a "core area" of legal rights that makes the shoot-to-kill East German law null, he said, according to Uta Folster, spokeswoman for the Berlin justice department.
It is accepted practice to shoot at borders, but not to kill, says Ms. Folster. The reason two of the border guards were acquitted, she says, is that they acted only to injure, not to kill, the victims.
It is too early to tell whether yesterday's convictions will be precedent setting. Mr. Heinrich's attorney says this is not the last word and plans to appeal. Still, the decision is an important signal to state prosecutors investigating more than 400 shootings along the intra-German border.
Much public criticism has been directed at this trial for catching small fish while the big ones get away. Former East German leader Erich Honecker, wanted for manslaughter related to border deaths, is still beyond the reach of German law in Moscow. It has not yet been determined whether Erich Mielke, former head of the German secret police, is healthy enough to stand trial, though prosecutors are aiming for a February trial date.
In closing arguments, even the prosecution asked for suspended sentences for the four border guards.