BERLIN prosecutors have finally succeeded in bringing one of the key political figures of former East Germany to trial. But, just as in other recent cases involving crimes committed under communist rule, this trial is hardly likely to satisfy victims of the regime.
Erich Mielke, head of the Ministry for State Security for more than 30 years, appeared in court Feb. 10 not because of any crimes he may have committed as chief of East Germany's secret police, or Stasi. Rather, he faces charges of murder related to a case stretching back 61 years.
On Aug. 9, 1931, Mr. Mielke allegedly killed two Berlin policemen as an act of revenge for the murder of a fellow communist. He fled to the Soviet Union and was out of reach of authorities when he was found guilty three years later by a Nazi court.
Mielke has also been indicted for Stasi crimes including embezzlement, wiretapping, election fraud, and human rights violations. But the prosecution has not yet finished gathering evidence for a trial involving these charges, which represent a separate case. It has therefore chosen to go ahead with the police-murder case, the only one for which it is now fully prepared.
The fact that Mielke is standing trial for killings during the Weimar Republic is another example of how bizarre the legal proceedings against former East German officials appear in the eyes of those who suffered under the communists.
Last year, for example, former Politburo member Harry Tisch, who directed trade-union organization in East Germany, was found guilty of corruption but walked free because he had already served his 18-month sentence in pretrial detention.
Last month two border guards were convicted of manslaughter in the 1989 shooting death of an East German fleeing to West Berlin. But the man responsible for the shoot-to-kill orders, former East German leader Erich Honecker, is still safely out of reach in Moscow.
"It is inconceivable, both for normal citizens in the East as well as the West, that one 'must' make way for an ancient crime while the things which Mielke did to so many have been evident for a long time," writes the conservative daily Die Welt.
It is a "bitter" state of affairs, writes the liberal Suddeutsche Zeitung, that Mielke "obviously cannot be appropriately prosecuted for what he caused in his decades-long bloody career."
On Feb. 10, Mielke's defense demanded that the case be thrown out of court, arguing that the statute of limitations applied. The case will go forward, ruled the judge, but the defense says it will be a sham trial, because there are no live witnesses and the prosecution is relying on investigations made by Nazis.
Defense attorneys also said they would continue to maintain that Mielke is unable to stand trial because of illness. He has been in pretrial detention for 18 months in a hospital prison in Berlin and undergone extensive physical examinations. He has been ruled provisionally able to stand trail; although, according to the terms of ruling, he is not allowed to appear in court for more than 90 minutes a day.