Germans Promise Honecker a Fair Trial

LEGAL authorities in Germany are promising that the trial of former East Germany leader Erich Honecker will be fair and impartial, untouched by politics.

There will be no "show trial," said Berlin Justice Senator Jutta Limbach, commenting on Wednesday's return of Mr. Honecker to Germany after 232 days holed up in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow.

Despite those assurances, many here say the trial cannot help but make political waves. "The courts will pay embarrassingly careful attention to "normality," to avoid every appearance of a political trial," wrote the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine in an editorial yesterday. "But it will be unavoidable that the trial becomes a political event."

Honecker, who oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall starting in 1961, faces several charges, the most important being 49 counts of manslaughter of East Germans shot trying to escape over the border to what was then West Germany.

Feelings about Honecker in Germany are extremely emotional. Some believe the 79-year-old Communist belongs to a closed chapter in history and should be let go. Others hold him personally responsible for the economic and psychological ruin of East Germany, as well as the deaths at the border (recently estimated at 350 to 400).

The border deaths were bad enough, said Social Democrat and East European expert Egon Bahr in a television interview. But worse is the fact that Honecker "robbed" millions of East Germans of "life chances," he said.

But Honecker will not be tried for political crimes. In pursuing their charges of manslaughter, the Berlin prosecution will argue that Honecker and other senior officials in his government broke international laws on civil rights and infringed on basic human rights.

The defense will argue that Honecker was acting according to the law of the land, and therefore did not break any law.

Honecker himself displayed confidence Wednesday afternoon, raising his fist defiantly as he left the Chilean Embassy.

Doctors who examined Honecker upon his arrival in Berlin said he was in good health and able to stand trial.

Honecker took refuge in a Soviet military hospital near Berlin in April 1990. Eleven months later he was secretly flown to Moscow, out of reach of the German authorities.

But after the sympathetic government in Moscow fell, and Boris Yeltsin said he would heed Bonn's calls for extradition, he fled to the Chilean Embassy.

A government spokesman in Bonn, Dieter Vogel, said "no deal" was made in securing Honecker's extradition.

Meanwhile, Honecker sits in a cell in Berlin's Moabit prison, the same prison where he was detained for his Communist underground work during Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Authorities hope to begin his trial before the end of the year.

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