Court ends Honecker trial, citing violation of 'human dignity'


BERLIN -- The trial of former East German Communist leader Erich Honecker ended last night with neither a bang nor a whimper but only a sad, grave sigh of mercy for the dying former dictator.

Mr. Honecker was accused in the deaths of 13 people killed at the Berlin Wall as they tried to escape his regime.

The Berlin Supreme Court declared yesterday that the trial of Mr. Honecker, who is 80 years old and ailing, violated constitutional protections of his "human dignity." They then told the criminal court to reconsider its imprisonment order.

The lower court ended the trial as darkness settled over the gaunt gray courthouse where Nazi judges once sent resistance leaders to their deaths.

Mr. Honecker is terminally ill with liver cancer, and court-appointed doctors say he has only three to six months to live. Defendants close to death are rarely tried in Germany.

Mr. Honecker is expected to be released today to fly to Santiago, Chile, where his wife, Margot, lives in exile with their daughter, Sonya, the wife of a Chilean leftist who found asylum in East Germany during the Honecker era.

Mr. Honecker is said to have packed his bags last night even though he must still answer a charge that he misappropriated money in East Germany to maintain a luxurious lifestyle in an East Berlin suburb. The charge is expected to be dropped routinely.

The trial of the former East German strongman, which began in November, had degenerated into a long series of arguments over whether he would survive to hear a verdict. No evidence dealing with the accusations was ever submitted in court. Mr. Honecker, who was deposed by the uprisings that brought down the Berlin Wall late in 1989, fled with his wife to Moscow in 1991. He had been the rigid ruler of East Germany for 18 years.

After his Soviet patrons were overthrown in Moscow in 1991, he holed up in the Chilean Embassy and fought against returning to Germany. He vowed he would never come back voluntarily unless he was granted immunity from prosecution.

But he eventually was forced out of the embassy. He stepped into a Volvo limousine with his right hand upraised in a clenched-fist salute.

The former East German boss had become something of an embarrassment to the new German government. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was committed to getting him back. But some accused the government of stalling because of fears that Mr. Honecker might reveal secret and compromising deals between East and West Germany.

Mr. Honecker was lodged in the same Moabit jail where he had been imprisoned by the Nazis from 1935 until the Allied victory over Germany in 1945.

He was originally charged with 49 counts of manslaughter at the Wall while he was head of the GDR's National Security Council. But the prosecution cut the number to a more manageable 13.

The charges derived from shoot-to-kill orders issued as the East German government tried to keep the increasing numbers of its citizens from fleeing west.

Recent studies of East German records indicate as many as 500 people might have died trying to cross the East-West border.

Only border guards have ever been put on trial in these deaths and then reluctantly. Last January a German court found one young guard guilty and sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison, gave another a suspended sentence and acquitted two others.

Many Germans felt it was unfair that guards who were following orders were being tried while no top East German leader had been tried for giving the orders.

After he was deposed in 1989, Mr. Honecker was arrested by the new East German government but released because of his failing health.

He was in a Red Army hospital outside Berlin in March 1991 when friends in the Soviet army spirited him away to Moscow aboard a military plane.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, rebuffed all Germany's efforts to have Mr. Honecker sent back. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Mr. Honecker sought 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.

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