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First Trial Begins in Deaths at the Berlin Wall

August 31, 1991

BERLIN (AP) _ Twenty minutes before midnight and nine months before it wouldn’t have mattered, Chris Gueffroy tried to scamper over the Berlin Wall.

Border guards shot the 20-year-old waiter on Feb. 5, 1989, a chilly Sunday night. They wounded a friend who accompanied him, Christian Gaudian, also 20.

Gueffroy died. Gaudian was sentenced to three years in jail. The border guards were given the customary commendation: a three-day holiday and a bonus.

The following November, the wall fell. Less than a year after that, East Germany was absorbed by West Germany.

On Monday, four ex-border guards will stand trial in Berlin on manslaughter and attempted manslaughter charges in the shootings.

Gueffroy was the last known person to die trying to cross the wall, and his case is the first of what probably will be many to come to trial.

Anout 300 people - from ousted Communist Party chief Erich Honecker to young guards recruited to prowl the old border - are being investigated for myriad abuses under the former government.

″Most of these investigations have to do with shoot-to-kill orders″ that resulted in about 200 deaths, said Berlin justice spokeswoman Jutta Burghart.

These investigations and Monday’s trial have posed yet another moral dilemma for a united nation that seems to specialize in soul-searching.

While four men not much older than Gueffroy face 15 years maximum in prison for obeying orders, the aging Communists who made the rules have yet to see the inside of a courtroom.

Berlin justice officials say they are working on it.

″We can’t go by the motto ’we grab the little guys but let the big ones get away,″ Berlin Justice Minister Jutta Limbach said.

The cases against the bigger names are considerably more complicated. Honecker was spirited away to Moscow by the Soviets, and German officials took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Communists last week to demand his return.

Former State Security Minister Erich Mielke, 84, whose secret police empire controlled the border patrols, is sick and reportedly senile. His case has been bogged down in medical evaluations.

But there are scores of other officials who are being held in Berlin while their cases plod through the investigative process. Only two officials have been brought to trial, and both were imprisoned on corruption convictions.

Like Honecker, the four border guards who go on trial Monday are charged with manslaughter.

Defense lawyers have said the four would have faced harsh punishment for not exercising the shoot-to-kill orders. Critics liken the argument to the ″I was only following orders″ defenses of Nazi war criminals.

The defendants in the Gueffroy case are Mike Schmidt, 26, a father of two who works as a millwright; Peter Schmett, 27, an electrician with three children; Ingo Heinrich, 26, an electronic engineer and husband; and Andreas Kuehnpast, 27, married and jobless.

The four allegedly gunned down Gueffroy and Gaudian near an isolated stretch of wall that ran along a canal forming part of the border between the two

While the Communist government was just starting to be rocked by protests, Gaudian was freed from jail in September 1989 and allowed to migrate to West Germany.

After the Communists were overthrown, Gueffroy’s mother, Karin Gueffroy, waged a long battle to bring her son’s killers to justice. She is listed as a co-plaintiff with the prosecution.

Four former East German generals last week published a letter saying that they, not the guards, should be held accountable for all border killings. Berlin justice officials said they indeed are being investigated.

Former East German Defense Minister Heinz Kessler, who also is being investigated for complicity, recently urged German President Richard von Weizsaecker to intercede in the Gueffroy case.

Still, the case is not likely to be the last.

Justice officials are reportedly preparing indictments against border guards who fatally wounded 25-year-old Michael Bittner in November 1986. As the prone, bleeding Bittner screamed: ″Let me go over,″ they allegedly shot him again.

Update hourly