Dark forces cloud murder inquiry

An investigation into the death of a crooked German politician has met strange obstacles, reports Imre Karacs
The mysterious death of Uwe Barschel, Germany's most enigmatic and possibly least honest post-war politician, continues to spring surprises nearly a decade after his demise. In October 1987, Helmut Kohl's protege was found dead in the bath in a Geneva hotel. He had choked on a cocktail of drugs.

"Suicide," read the official verdict, but a group of public investigators in northern Germany have been conducting a murder inquiry just in case. Their preliminary report, a 170-page whodunnit with a cast of thousands, was published last week. It drew no firm conclusions, but charted the main lines of inquiry, and it appeared that some of the strands were beginning to come together.

It was, therefore, a shock when the top judicial authority in the investigation, the chief public prosecutor of Schleswig-Holstein, announced his resignation in protest against "political interference". Heribert Ostendorf claimed that the regional justice minister had tried to nobble the search for the truth, and hinted that some of his own minions were all too willing to comply. The methods applied by various people to alter the course of justice had "bordered on the unlawful", Mr Ostendorf declared.

The identity of those people and their possible motives can only be guessed at, but if even a fraction of the allegations against the putative murder victim are true, then dark hints about cover-ups become easily credible.

Barschel was an energetic Christian Democrat politician, marked out for the highest office in the country before he was unmasked as a crook. At the age of 43, he was forced to resign as prime minister of Schleswig- Holstein following revelations that he had engineered the dirtiest dirty- tricks campaign against his Social Democrat opponent in the history of German democracy.

That, say his surviving party colleagues, is enough to drive a man to suicide, though it is hard to explain why he should fly all the way to Geneva to commit the deed. But according to the prosecutors' report, there may have been another aspect to Barschel's life which would explain a different ending. Apart from politics, there is growing evidence that he dabbled in commerce of the most lethal kind.

"He certainly played a role in a network of politicians and industrialists who dealt in weapons," says Peter Muller, an investigative journalist who has spent years trying to unravel the plot. The accounts of witnesses interviewed by the prosecutors and the media all seem to converge on one point: Barschel had become involved in Oliver North's Iran-Contra affair, and might have tried to blackmail clients after his fall from grace.

Three witnesses confirm separately the existence of a photograph showing Col North with Barschel and an East German Stasi agent. Iran's exiled former president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, has spoken of a link between the Barschel affair and the Iran-Contra scandal. There are records of unexplained trips by Barschel to Eastern Europe between 1982 and 1987, which investigators think may have had something to do with the purchase of weapons.

Then there is the testimony of Josef Messeger, an arms trader, who told officials that Barschel had been poisoned by drugs administered in a bottle of Jack Daniels. Swiss forensic experts had originally found no trace of any drug in the bottle recovered from the hotel room's wastepaper basket. The German group, acting on Mr Messeger's tip, carried out another test and discovered minute quantities of the substance that caused Barschel's death. Mr Messeger says Barschel was murdered because he was trying to extort $10m (pounds 6.1m) from the Iranians in return for his silence.

All this is fanciful conjecture, of course, and not a shred of it would stand up in court. The prosecutors admit as much themselves, but say in their defence that they were forced to reveal their preliminary findings before they had time to harden up their evidence. Somebody had leaked the report, they claim, which put their work in a bad light and provoked calls from higher places for a rapid conclusion of the inquiry.

As matters now stand, they have until the summer to close the files. Why it has suddenly become so urgent to wind up an investigation which has been going on for 10 years, nobody can tell. But some other members of the legal team are on the verge of resigning, because they feel they can no longer do their job. The report relies heavily on confidential information given by witnesses whose anonymity is now blown. The team's verdict is that the Barschel inquest is dead - cause unknown.