Honecker bitter about Russian 'betrayal'

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The Independent Online
ERICH HONECKER remained silent yesterday as a Berlin magistrate formally charged him in connection with 49 cases of manslaughter and the misappropriation of state funds during his 18 years as leader of East Germany.

The hearing lasted just five minutes. Mr Honecker's lawyer, Friedrich Wolff, said his client felt 'bitter' and 'betrayed' by the Russian government, which facilitated his dramatic return to Berlin on Wednesday. With no appeal against the charges, Mr Honecker was then returned to his cell in Moabit, where he spent two years for his opposition to the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

Berlin's justice authority, responsible for the case against Mr Honecker, said he would be treated like any normal prisoner and that it hoped to bring him to trial by autumn. After the seven- month battle to prise the 79-year-old Communist hardliner out of the Chilean embassy in Moscow, many Germans yesterday welcomed such a prospect. While those imprisoned under his rule revelled in seeing their tormentor behind bars, Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed a 'certain satisfaction' at the news. 'It was about time,' he said. 'Now the trial can begin.'

Others, however, expressed deep reservations, arguing that the legal proceedings ahead would inevitably degenerate into a 'show trial' and that they could prove embarrassing for the many West German politicians who had contacts with the East German regime - including Chancellor Kohl.

Hubert Dreyling, the lawyer defending Erich Mielke, former head of East Germany's Stasi secret police and another Moabit inmate, said: 'He (Mr Honecker) knows an amazing amount . . . All hell could break loose.'

Klaus Bolling, who headed the West German mission to East Berlin in the early 1980s, admitted to feeling uneasy about the trial. 'To some extent we were all involved,' he said. 'We received Mr Honecker as head of state and tacitly accepted his regime and the Berlin Wall. The trial is going to be very difficult and painful.'

The main charges against Mr Honecker concern his alleged complicity in the issuing of the 'shoot-to-kill' order at the Berlin Wall and the former inner- German border under which more than 250 East Germans were killed trying to flee to the West.

With several former border guards already tried - and convicted - for their part in the killings, the Berlin authority is desperate to show that, in addition to the small fish, the big fish will be brought to justice.

'It would be unbearable if young men had to face courts for their shots at the Berlin Wall while the old, cowardly man (Mr Honecker) could cite the immunity he claims to have as a former head of state,' said the Berliner Zeitung newspaper yesterday.

Not even Mr Honecker's most ardent supporters doubt his moral and political guilt. But, given that he is to be tried under East German law, they argue that the case will simply not stand up in court. 'The main point is that Erich Honecker acted in accordance with East German law and cannot be held personally guilty for the border deaths,' said Reiner Oschmann, deputy editor of the former Communist Party newspaper, Neues Deutschland. 'The judges will simply reinterpret the laws from today's point of view and it will be nothing but a show trial.'

The legal wrangling is expected to last months, if not years. Mr Honecker may well plead he is unfit to stand trial long before the proceedings are over.

After a 30-minute meeting with him yesterday, Mr Wolff said that Mr Honecker's health was already showing alarming signs of deterioration. Mr Wolff said that his client's mental condition would suffer as a result of being separated from his wife, Margot, who yesterday flew to Chile, where one of the Honeckers' daughters lives.

Berlin's justice authority, meanwhile, is currently investigating charges against Mrs Honecker. As East Germany's Education Minister, she was responsible for the policy of forced adoptions of children taken away from parents who did not toe the party line.