Ousted East German leader returned to stand trial


BERLIN -- Erich Honecker, the leader of Communist East Germany deposed by the uprisings that brought down the Berlin Wall, was returned to Germany yesterday to face charges his orders led to the deaths of 49 people trying to escape his regime.

Spirited out of Germany in March 1991, he has been holed up in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow for eight months, vowing never to come back voluntarily unless he was granted immunity from prosecution.

Mr. Honecker was taken to Moabit Jail, where he was imprisoned by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

"He will get a fair trial," said Dieter Vogel, spokesman of the German federal government. "He won't be treated any better or worse than any other political prisoner.

"It won't be a political trial," Mr. Vogel said. "We don't have that."

Mr. Honecker's wife, Margot, who also was an East German official, remained in Moscow.

In Berlin, Mr. Honecker was met by police as he left the plane at a remote landing pad at Tegel. Much of the airport had been sealed off by very tight security, after word came that he had left on a three-hour flight from Moscow.

Mr. Honecker, East Germany's rigid hard-line ruler for 18 years, was whisked away under heavy guard with a blare of sirens and flaring blue lights in a kind of parody of the honors he received when he visited West Germany as head of the German Democratic Republic.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl was committed to getting him back to stand trial. But some accused the government of stalling because of fears that he would reveal secret and compromising deals between East and West Germany.

Mr. Honecker is charged with 49 counts of manslaughter in the deaths of East Germans trying to flee over the wall and its "death strip" while he was head of the GDR's National Security Council. He is also accused of 25 attempted manslaughters.

The charges derive from shoot-to-kill orders issued as the East German government tried to stop its citizens fleeing west.

The city of Berlin, not the federal government, has jurisdiction in the manslaughter cases, and the charges have been brought by the Berlin Justice Commission. Mr. Honecker also must face accusations of embezzlement and misuse of funds.

Recent studies of East German records indicate that as many as 400 people may have died trying to cross the East-West border, more than twice the 187 officially recorded.

Only border guards have been put on trial in these deaths. Many Germans feel it's unfair that no top East German leader has been tried for the crimes alleged against their regime.

Willi Stoph, 77, last chairman of the GDR's Council of Ministers, and Heinz Kessler, 72, once defense minister, are now imprisoned at Moabit, awaiting trial.

Erich Mielke, 84, former secret police boss, has been on trial for months. He is charged with murders committed in 1933.

When, and if, he is brought to court, Mr. Honecker probably also will be tried at the Moabit Courthouse, a hulking gray neo-classical relic where some of the most infamous Nazi trials were held.

For the next two days Mr. Honecker will be in a medical section of the prison where he will be examined to determine if he is healthy enough to stand trial.

Mr. Honecker, who will be 80 Aug. 25, has complained frequently of ill health while in custody or trying to avoid returning to Germany.

After he was deposed in 1989, three weeks before the Berlin Wall came down, he was arrested by the new East German government but was released for health reasons. He has had a cancer operation. But successive examinations have found him in good health.

He was in a Red Army hospital outside Berlin in March 1991 when friends in the Soviet army secretly took him to Moscow.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev rebuffed all Germany's efforts to have Mr. Honecker sent back. When the Soviet Union collapsed last December, Mr. Honecker took refuge in the Chilean Embassy.

In the 1970s, he had sheltered high Chilean officials, including the Moscow ambassador, in East Germany after the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup.

But he was refused permission when he sought to go to Chile, where his daughter lives.

The new Russian regime of Boris N. Yeltsin was eager to see him sent back. Germany is the largest supplier of aid to Russia.

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