Berlin trial in final stages

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The Independent Online
BERLIN - It was a mistake to release the East German leader Erich Honecker, the prosecution said yesterday, as final arguments began in the manslaughter trial that once was seen as united Germany's main chance to condemn the brutality of the collapsed Communist regime.

Only three of the original six defendants are still in court, and Mr Honecker, who oversaw the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, is free in Chile, suffering from liver cancer but still alive despite medical predictions when he was released on 13 January.

The chief prosecutor, Bernhard Jahntz, complained in the Berlin state court that the appeals courts had been 'legally wrong' in deciding to stop the 80-year-old Mr Honecker's trial on human rights grounds because of his health.

The trial, which started in November 1992, is expected to end in mid-September with verdicts on the three men who are the less-prominent half of the original six defendants from East Germany's National Defence Council.

They are accused of manslaughter in the deaths of people trying to flee to the West over the Berlin Wall or elsewhere on the inner-German border. Almost 600 people are believed to have died in escape attempts before the wall was opened in November 1989, though the defendants are individually accused of only small numbers of such deaths.

On trial are former East German defence minister Heinz Kessler, 72; his former deputy, Fritz Strelitz, 66; and Hans Albrecht, 72, Communist Party chief in the city of Suhl.

Conviction for ordinary manslaughter in Germany means sentences of five to 15 years.

The prosecutor urged that Mr Kessler should spend 12 years behind bars, Mr Strelitz 10 years and Mr Albrecht eight years.