Within hours of the court's announcement, which came one day after manslaughter charges were also dropped, a convoy of police cars escorted Mr Honecker to Berlin's Tegel airport, from where he flew to Chile to be reunited with his wife, Margot, and daughter, Sonja.
Members of the 'Erich Honecker Solidarity Committee' who had gathered at the airport were clearly jubilant at their hero's release. But relatives of victims of the 'shoot-to-kill' policy at East Germany's borders which Mr Honecker was alleged to have ordered, denounced the decision to free him as a travesty of justice.
Expressing their feelings of anger, Bernd Seite, Prime Minister of the east German Land (regional state) of Mecklenburg- Vorpommern, described the release as a 'slap in the face for all those who died at the Berlin Wall'.
Karin Gueffroy, whose son, Chris, was the last of more than 200 East Germans killed trying to cross to the West, said that Mr Honecker had received from the court 'the humanity that he formerly did not grant to others'.
While most Germans, both from the east and west, felt that Mr Honecker had somehow escaped just punishment, there was a grudging acknowledgement that, as he is dying from liver cancer, there was no alternative but to let him go.
To many, indeed, his release came as a relief - bringing to an end a trial which rapidly degenerated into a macabre debate over the rights and wrongs of trying a man who would not live to see the final verdict. 'It would have been grotesque if we had literally tried Mr Honecker to death,' said Klaus Bolling, a former head of the West German mission in East Berlin. 'In the end, we have shown that human dignity was more important than the desire to obtain a guilty verdict.'
The decision to drop the charges of embezzlement and manslaughter against Mr Honecker came after Berlin's constitutional court ruled on Tuesday that his continued detention represented a violation of human dignity.
During his last few appearances in court, Mr Honecker, now 80 and not expected to live more than six months, has looked increasingly ill and unable to follow the proceedings. His lawyers have repeatedly called for the trial, which relates specifically to 13 killings at the Wall and former inner-German border, to be called off on humanitarian grounds. Mr Honecker himself, who is expected to get a warm welcome in Chile from Communist sympathisers, has condemned the proceedings as a 'show trial' and a politically motivated act of 'revenge'. Not once since the trial opened in November has he expressed the slightest regret over those who died as a result of the 'shoot-to- kill' policy.
Berlin's justice authority, responsible for bringing the charges against Mr Honecker, had hoped to show that, in addition to border guards convicted for some of the killings, those responsible for issuing the orders would also be brought to justice.
Jutta Limbach, Berlin's Justice Senator, admitted yesterday that she was 'disappointed' to see Mr Honecker slip out of the authority's clutches. But she stressed that trials against other members of East Germany's former National Defence Council - including Heinz Kessler, a former defence minister - who allegedly issued the 'shoot-to-kill' orders would be going ahead.
With Mr Honecker now gone, however, most observers believe that the chance for a real reckoning with the past has been lost.
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