Top generals facing the music at last

Berlin Wall deaths: Former East German military men in the dock over shoot-to-kill policy
Eight former East German generals went on trial yesterday in connection with the death of hundreds of East Germans trying to escape to the West. It is the latest in a series of cases against those involved in the "shoot- to-kill" policy of the Berlin Wall, but is the first involving senior military figures.

More than 30 previous trials have been directed against former border guards who fired the fatal shots. Attempts to bring the country's former Communist leaders to trial, however, have been largely unsuccessful owing to the age and ill-health of those accused.

Yesterday's proceedings got off to a slow start when defence lawyers, claiming the Berlin court was not competent, succeeded in getting the trial adjourned for a week. A small group of diehard Communists turned up to applaud the defence's opening remarks, including Egon Krenz, who succeeded Erich Honecker as leader when the East German state began crumbling in the autumn of 1989. Mr Krenz smiled and gave a clenched-fist salute of defiance.

Among those in the dock are Helmet Borufka and Heinz Handke, former heads of the armed forces, and Wolfgang Reinhold, a former head of the air force. The others include several deputy defence ministers. All eight are charged with complicity in manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

As members of East Germany's defence ministry, they are accused of having endorsed orders issued by the National Defence Council which specified that "border violators are to be destroyed".

About 825 people died during attempts to cross the Berlin Wall or the former border between East and West Germany.

The last of the killings took place in February 1989, only nine months before the Berlin Wall fell.

The accused, aged between 61 and 85, claim they only had an advisory role, were in no position to counter National Security Council orders, and could only rubber-stamp them.

Like the trials of some of East Germany's former political leaders, the proceedings are expected to be long and fraught with legal complexity.

On account of the age and ill- health of the defendants, the maximum duration of the court sittings has been set at three hours.

Berlin's state prosecutors are nevertheless determined to press charges against all those they believe were behind the shoot-to-kill policy, at whatever level. The bulk of the trials that have been held so far have been against the border guards who actually pulled the triggers. They have argued that they were only obeying orders and have mostly received suspended or very light sentences.

Sensitive to criticism that they were focusing too much attention on the "little men", the city's justice authorities in late 1992 brought charges against six former members of the National Security Council, including Honecker, and the ex-chief of the Stasi secret police, Erich Mielke.

However, the attempt to nail the regime's most successful figures met only with partial success. The proceedings against three of the accused - including Honecker, now dead - had to be dropped on the grounds of ill-health.

The remaining three, the most senior of whom was Heinz Kessler, a former defence minister, were sentenced to between four-and-a-half and seven- and-a-half years in jail.