Kohl wins court battle to keep secret Stasi files concealed

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Whatever secrets the Stasi had gathered about Helmut Kohl will remain safely locked away from the public following a landmark decision last night by a Berlin court.

The verdict is a victory for the former chancellor and a grave setback for the parliamentary commission investigating his dubious financial dealings.

Mr Kohl had gone to court as it emerged that some of the vast files of the former East German intelligence service might contain clues about his fund-raising activities in the years before the Berlin Wall fell. He has admitted accepting DM2m (£600,000) in undeclared donations from people or organisations he still refuses to name.

The Stasi shadowed Mr Kohl for years, tapped his telephone and assembled a library of some 2,000 documents charting his career. Under a post-unification law bearing Mr Kohl's signature, journalists and professional researchers are allowed access to the Stasi hoard, as long as there is no danger that the Stasi's victims might be hurt.

The agency looking after the files wanted to allow journalists a peek in the Kohl files. "Whoever wants to shed light on the Stasi activities must take an interest in what the Stasi was interested in," said Marianne Birthler, the official custodian of all Stasi documents. But Mr Kohl's lawyers argued that revealing what the snoops had discovered would be a violation to the politician's "human dignity". Furthermore, there was no guarantee that any of the information revealed was true.

After a day of deliberations, the Berlin judge ruled in Mr Kohl's favour. The court said a law passed by Mr Kohl's government after reunification that regulates access to the Stasi files bars the release of records on people targeted by the Stasi, including "figures in contemporary history... and therefore also the plaintiff".

The ruling sets a precedent that is likely to be seized by the former East German skating star Katarina Witt, who has also gone to court to stop publication of her Stasi files. Revelations have damaged several prominent East Germans.

Mr Kohl touched off the slush fund scandal in late 1999 by admitting he had accepted the DM2m in undeclared donations during the 1990s. He has refused to name the donors, fuelling speculation that cash was traded for favours ­ which the former chancellor vehemently denies.

Parliamentary investigators say they would not use Mr Kohl's Stasi files as evidence, but might use information from them to question witnesses.

Ms Birthler said she would appeal the court decision, saying that "substantial research sources have been blocked off".