Retroactive Justice: Applying West German Rules to Ex-Reds

Vengeance or reconciliation? This second of a two-part series looks at more examples of nations dealing with former despotic leaders since the collapse of communism and the spread of democracy. Part 1 ran in last week's Global Report.

WHEN it came time for Germany to confront its legacy of division, the government neither forgave nor forgot about the Communist rulers of East Germany.

Since reunification in 1990, Bonn has continued to prosecute former East German officials suspected of misusing their authority by committing human rights violations. But the top Communist echelon has largely escaped judgment, leaving it to their underlings to bear the brunt of the punishment.

For example, Erich Honecker - the man who oversaw the construction of the Berlin Wall and who was East Germany's paramount leader from 1971 to 1989 - was judged too ill to stand trial in 1992. He ended up in exile in Chile, where he died this year.

Two of Honecker's top henchmen - former East German Prime Minister Willi Stoph and Erich Mielke, the former Stasi secret police chief - have also escaped punishment for Communist-era crimes on grounds of ill health. Mr. Mielke, however, was convicted in 1993 of murdering two Berlin policemen in 1931, during the tumultuous epoch that preceded the Nazi dictatorship. He is serving a six-year sentence.

Perhaps the most sensational trial centering on the Communists' abuse of power ended in September 1993 with manslaughter convictions for former Defense Minister Heinz Kessler, former Deputy Defense Minister Fritz Strelitz, and former Berlin Communist Party official Heinz Albrecht.

The trio was condemned for ordering border guards to shoot would-be refugees trying to escape to the West. They received sentences ranging from 4-1/2 to 7-1/2 years. The shoot-to-kill policy led to at least 400 deaths during East German escape attempts.

Some border guards involved in shooting incidents also have been tried. Two have been sentenced to prison, nine have been given suspended sentences, and 13 have been acquitted.

In another notable conviction, Markus Wolf, the Stasi's top spy, got a six-year term for treason in 1993. His trial, however, generated controversy about the German pursuit of justice.

Wolf asserted that he could not be tried under West German law for his East German spying, insisting he had always been loyal to the East German government. A German court ended up rejecting Wolf's claim.

Investigations into the activity of dozens of other former East German officials continue. German prosecutors are mulling over whether to bring charges against several of those who were prominent officials under the former regime, including Egon Krenz, the East German leader at the time of the Berlin Wall's fall in November 1989.

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