Prosecutors defend the trial of East German spymaster: Legalistic arguments against espionage boss have makings of a farce

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GERMAN legal authorities yesterday defended the decision to put Markus Wolf on trial, despite widespread predictions that the case against the former East German espionage chief would end inconclusively and possibly in farce.

'Every country has the right to defend itself against spies and to prosecute those who commit offences on its soil,' said Hans-Jurgen Forster, spokesman of the Federal Prosecutor's Office. 'Markus Wolf knew the risks he was taking - and that acts for which he was responsible were punishable under West German law. Many of his agents have already been tried and convicted here.'

At the opening of his trial on Tuesday, Mr Wolf claimed that, as he was an East German citizen at the time, he could not be charged retrospectively for treason and bribery under West German - now all German - law. The whole process was 'absurd' he insisted, and if he was convicted it would be a case of 'victor's justice'.

In an act of protest, Mr Wolf yesterday sat silently in the Dusseldorf court hearing the case, refusing to comment on factual statements relating to the formation and working of the East Germany intelligence agency he headed so successfully between 1953 and 1986. He intends to remain silent for the rest of the trial, which could run well into next year.

Mr Wolf also insists that if he and his colleagues can be put on trial then so too should West German spies.

It is a notion promptly dismissed by the Federal Prosecutor's Office, which argues that whereas the West German secret service was ultimately under democratic control, the East German service was part and parcel of a monstrously repressive system. 'And, besides, whereas spying against what was West Germany is still counted as an offence, spying against the former East Germany is not,' Mr Forster said.

Whichever way you look, it always seems to come full circle. Even Mr Wolf's claim to have been a citizen of a different country at the time of his alleged offences can be disputed. 'Of course, Mr Wolf was an East German citizen, but he was also a German citizen,' explained Klaus Forsen, a spokesman at the Dusseldorf court. 'West Germany was the legal successor to the Third Reich. So although we recognised East Germany as a separate country, we viewed its citizens as both foreigners and fellow nationals.'

Confused? So are most Germans. All eyes are now on the constitutional court in Karlsruhe, which has been asked to rule on the legality of trying Werner Grossmann, Mr Wolf's successor, on similar charges. If they decide that Mr Grossmann should not be put on trial, proceedings against Mr Wolf will be dropped immediately.