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Berlin Wall Shooting Mixes Roles

December 14, 1998

BERLIN (AP) _ Thirty-six years after risking his life to get his family out of communist East Germany, a man who was hailed in the west as a hero went on trial Monday for the murder of a border guard.

Prosecutors say Mueller shot the startled young guard point-blank while making his escape.

The proceedings against Rudolf Mueller, now 67, were suspended after only 90 minutes when the defense challenged the neutrality of the judges. Another court was expected to rule on the motion by Friday.

Mueller’s case is believed to be the first to reverse the pattern since German unification in 1990, in which hundreds of former East German border guards and officials have been convicted on charges related to shooting those trying to flee to the West.

The apparent one-sidedness has prompted many in eastern Germany to complain of ``victor’s justice.″ Berlin officials hope the Mueller trial will help them refute that charge.

The Justice Ministry has denied claims that prosecutors dragged their feet in bringing charges against Mueller, blaming the heavy workload it faces in sorting through the tremendous volume of secret files kept by East Germany’s security apparatus.

``Whatever there is to be pursued, prosecutors have to pursue it and they do so, no matter which political side the perpetrator and victim were on,″ Justice Ministry spokesman Matthias Rebentisch said.

Mueller was held briefly after being charged in June 1997, then released on $60,000 bail. He no longer lives in Berlin, and he and his lawyer declined to comment before the trial.

Mueller had made it out of East Germany before the Wall went up, then spent weeks digging a 72-foot tunnel with plans to rescue his family.

On June 18, 1962, he crossed to the East to bring his family to the building near the Wall where his tunnel led. As they approached, they were stopped by 20-year-old Reinhold Huhn, who was armed with a machine gun.

Mueller told West Berlin police Huhn asked to see their papers. Huhn was looking through a bag when Mueller said he punched him, knocking him down. Before Huhn could get up, another border guard opened fire, hitting the guard, Mueller claimed.

The family fled and made it to the West.

The East Germans told a different story _ one that prosecutors now believe.

Citing witnesses, they say Mueller was stopped, pretended to reach for his ID card and pulled out a gun, shooting Huhn point-blank.

Mueller himself muddied the case during a celebratory post-escape news conference.

With whiskey flowing, Mueller was asked about how many times he had to ``pull the trigger.″ He was quoted as saying: ``Once. The man fell down immediately.″ In the jovial atmosphere it was not clear if he was being serious.

East Germany demanded Mueller be handed over. West Germany refused.

Mueller left Berlin and became a union official and businessman. His case slipped from memory in the West.

But Huhn became a martyr for the East German propaganda machine. East Berlin named a street after him near the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing and hung a plaque pledging to bring his killer to justice.

The tablet is now gone, but the street name remains.

Update hourly