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East German Communist Leader Gets Parole

December 18, 2003

BERLIN (AP) _ Egon Krenz, East Germany’s last hard-line communist leader, who allowed the historic opening of the Berlin Wall during a brief seven weeks in power, was released from jail Thursday after serving nearly four years for the shooting deaths of East Germans trying to flee to the West.

The 66-year-old Krenz did not smile as he emerged from the Ploetzensee Prison, where he was serving 6 1/2 year sentence on a 1997 manslaughter conviction. He exhausted the appeals process in January 2000.

A crush of reporters and television cameras _ but no protesters _ met the highest former East German official convicted of crimes committed by the Cold War regime.

``Contrary to what has been said, I have always said it was a personal defeat for me that we were not in a position to prevent deaths and injuries at the border,″ Krenz said as he left prison, clutching a black overnight bag.

``Those were the circumstances of the Cold War. I have always expressed my sympathy and regret to relatives of the victims on this question. But I didn’t need a trial for that. I didn’t need four years.″

About 1,000 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall and other heavily fortified stretches of Germany’s east-west border between 1961 and the 1989 fall of the Wall. The last person killed was 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy, who was shot in February 1989 as tried to reach West Berlin.

Although the last Wall death occurred months before Krenz took power, he was held partly responsible for border deaths because, as a longtime member of the Communist Party Politburo, he had condoned shoot-to-kill orders.

Krenz maintains he was innocent, and unsuccessfully appealed his conviction all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. He had argued that stopping citizens from fleeing the communist country broke no East German law.

Hundreds of former East German border guards and officials have been convicted since German reunification in 1990 for shootings along the former border during the Cold War. Most received suspended sentences.

Krenz’s sentence allowed him to leave jail to work during the day as an economic adviser at a German startup airline, but he had to return to his cell every night.

He was paroled because he had served nearly two-thirds of his sentence, as allowed under German law, and had behaved well in prison, Berlin justice spokeswoman Annette Grabbe said.

``This is a person who causes no trouble and has a job. We don’t expect him to commit any more crimes,″ Grabbe told The Associated Press.

Krenz said he intended to return to a home in the town of Ribnitz-Damgarten on the Baltic coast near Rostock, where he would spend Christmas with his family and begin work on his memoirs.

Although East Germans brought down the former communist regime through months of peaceful protests, many were not so eager to see the former leadership put on trial under western German laws, calling the prosecutions ``victor’s justice.″

``I’m of the opinion that incorrect policies should be dealt with as such, but not as a criminal matter,″ Gregor Gysi, a charismatic former leader of the formerly communist Party of Democratic Socialism, told Berlin’s Tagesspiegel daily. He described Krenz’s release as ``overdue and right.″

The feeling was shared by some east Berliners.

``I think it’s good that he’s finally coming out,″ said Ursula Klein, a 65-year-old retiree. ``They were judged for things they did within East Germany’s law.″

But a former East German pro-democracy activist was outraged, saying it would hasten a trend toward glossing over the tyranny of the former regime. ``Krenz is not just some random criminal,″ said Stephan Hilsberg, now a lawmaker for the Social Democratic party. ``This is a terrible signal. I can’t accept this ruling at all.″

Under the communist regime, Krenz served in a succession of senior posts from 1973 until shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

He served for only 49 days as East Germany’s leader after replacing the long-serving Erich Honecker, who was ousted amid mounting demonstrations demanding reforms and freedom to travel.

Krenz’s hardline leadership was replaced in December 1989 by a reform-oriented caretaker government led by Hans Modrow, a moderate communist who governed until the country’s first democratic elections in March 1990.

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