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Murder back on agenda in Barschel case

A fresh inquiry has begun into the mysterious death of a politician. Steve Crawshaw reports from Bonn

Steve Crawshaw
Tuesday 03 January 1995 01:02 GMT

The body was discovered in the bathtub, in room 317 of the Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva, on 11 October 1987. Officially, it was suicide. Now, more than seven years on, the conspiracy theorists are triumphant. Murder, by person or persons unknown, i s backon the agenda.

The German authorities have reopened the investigation into the mysterious death of Uwe Barschel, former prime minister of the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein. It seems certain that there will be new revelations, and new confusions, in the days and weeks to come. The choice of alleged assassins already includes the former East German secret service, the Stasi, Iranian arms dealers and Israeli agents.

The Barschel story has more twists and turns than a John Le Carre novel. Barschel lied when he was accused of dirty tricks; his chief accuser lied; his opponents lied. It is still unclear whether any kind of "truth" can emerge - unless secret agents suddenly decide to reveal all.

The Barschel affair - "the biggest political detective story in German post-war history, as Der Spiegel described it this week - began in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Schleswig-Holstein, in September 1987. On the eve of the election Der Spiegel said Barschel had arranged for the telephone of his Social Democrat challenger, Bjorn Engholm, to be bugged. Barschel resigned, while protesting his innocence, at a famous "on-my-word-of-honour" press conference.

It then emerged that, despite the denials, Barschel had been involved in the dirty tricks campaign, including inquiries about Mr Engholm's tax return. Barschel flew to Geneva, allegedly for a meeting with a mysterious "Roloff", whose information was supposed to help clear him of blame.

Until recently, "Roloff" was believed to have been a mere invention, designed for Barschel's own Machiavellian reasons to make his suicide look like murder. Now, however, it seems that Roloff did indeed exist and may have worked for the Stasi. The agency's interest in Barschel was strong: it is now known that his telephone was regularly tapped. Whether Barschel was only a victim, or was actively enmeshed, remains unclear.

The Stasi were not the only ones interested. It seems that the CIA reported on a mysterious meeting of arms dealers in Geneva, the day before Barschel died, allegedly of an overdose. Participants are said to have included Ayatollah Khomeini's son and a character whom the Americans code-named "Perch" - a fish that is known in German as "Barsch". Add to this the fact that Barschel's own brother is alleged to have been involved in arms dealing, and the conspiratorial permutations continue to multiply.

Evidence in favour of the murder theory includes unexplained telephone calls, and a vanished, half-drunk bottle of wine. In addition, according to some medical reports, Barschel would not have been able to take the mixture of drugs that he did, by himself. No packages for the drugs were ever found.

There are now two parallel investigations. The investigation into Barschel's death is running at full speed once more. Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee is looking into the circumstances in which Reiner Pfeiffer, a Barschel aide, leaked the original allegations against him. It now seems that Mr Pfeiffer may have received money from the opposition Social Democrats.

When part of this sub-plot was revealed last year, Mr Engholm - the dirty-tricks victim who had, in the meantime, become the Social Democrat party leader, and potential challenger to Helmut Kohl - was forced to resign. It was clear that, at the very least, the party had been aware of the campaign against Mr Engholm. In other words, the show of injured innocence had been just that - a show. Mr Pfeiffer - who was regarded as a trusted witness in 1987, but whose credibility is now at an all-time low - is due to take the witness stand in two weeks.

Meanwhile, Bernd Schmidbauer, minister with responsibility for the intelligence services, said yesterday that the government would support "all efforts that contribute to clearing up the Barschel case". Prosecutors in Lubeck, given overall responsibilityfor the case, say they are looking for "persons unknown". But Heinrich Willer, a prosecutor, emphasises: "The possibility of suicide, with or without a third person's help, is still not excluded."

Above all, it is the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of East Germany that has made it possible for new evidence to emerge. The key Stasi files that might shed light on the affair have not yet been found. But some Stasi officers now seem ready to talk. Even if the Stasi was not directly involved in Barschel's death, the Stasi's knowledge may still hold the key.

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