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East Germany’s last communist leader convicted in border shootings

August 26, 1997

BERLIN (AP) _ The East German communist leader who threw open the Berlin Wall eight years ago was convicted of manslaughter Monday for the shooting deaths of citizens who tried to flee to the West during the Cold War.

Egon Krenz, who labeled the trial ``victor’s justice,″ remained defiant even as he was taken into custody to begin serving his 6 1/2-year sentence.

Pale but with his head held high, the 60-year-old Krenz shouted ``I will not submit!″ before being led away.

Krenz says he does not accept unified Germany’s right to prosecute him.

``I wasn’t convicted because of a crime, but because of my political offices in East Germany,″ he said in a statement afterward. ``The political persecution is revenge for the fact that East Germany existed.″

The Berlin state court convicted Krenz on four manslaughter counts and ordered him jailed immediately as a potential flight risk.

The verdicts mark the first time former members of the East German political hierarchy have been held accountable for deaths at the heavily fortified East German border.

It also was likely to be the last such trial against former political leaders, since most either have died or been excused for health reasons. Other trials since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall have dealt only with border guards and military leaders.

At least 916 people were killed trying to escape during East Germany’s 41 years of existence, according to authorities, including 80 at the Berlin Wall. The charges were reduced to six counts of manslaughter to speed up the trial that began in November 1995.

Krenz’s defense lawyers had argued he couldn’t be held accountable for the deaths because East Germany lacked independence as a pawn of Moscow.

The court said that was no defense. ``Even if East Germany acted under the command of the Soviet Union, the crimes still must be prosecuted,″ presiding Judge Josef Hoch said.

Two co-defendants _ former East Berlin communist chief Guenter Schabowski, 67, and economics expert Guenter Kleiber, 65 _ each were convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to three years. No date was set for them to report to prison.

Prosecutors, who had asked for 11 years, said they might appeal the sentence.

Defense lawyers for all three said they would consider appealing. Krenz said he’d also go to the European Court of Justice.

For those who survived escape attempts and the relatives of those who did not, the verdict was a long time in coming. About 100 gathered outside the turn-of-the-century courthouse chanting ``Murderers, murderers!″ as the defendants entered.

Many thought the sentences were too light.

``It’s a slap in the face for all former political prisoners,″ said Ronald Hepner, a 45-year-old machine tool worker who was shot in 1980 trying to swim across the border and spent nearly four years in an East German prison.

Karin Gueffroy, whose son, Chris, was the last person to be killed at the Berlin Wall, on Feb. 5, 1989, left the court in tears.

``I can live with it,″ she said quietly. ``But I wish the sentence had been longer.″

Krenz, a Politburo member since late 1983, was security chief in 1989 when he succeeded Erich Honecker, who was dumped from the top job because of the increasing unrest in the country.

Krenz himself was kicked out of the party two months after he ordered the opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

In trial testimony, Krenz said he regretted the deaths, but blamed them on a ``confrontation of the superpowers.″ Especially when it came to border and security issues, he testified, East Germany was forced to defer to the Soviet Union.

He maintained he was innocent of manslaughter and called the trial ``victor’s justice.″

But even his lawyer expected a guilty verdict after the nation’s highest court said a united Germany had the right to prosecute former East German officials because the shoot-to-kill orders at the border violated international human rights laws.

That verdict upheld the 1993 conviction of former East German Defense Minister Heinz Kessler, his top aide Fritz Streletz and communist boss Hans Albrecht on charges of incitement to manslaughter in their roles as military leaders.

Charges were brought earlier against Honecker, but he was declared physically unfit for trial and died in Chile in 1994.

About three dozen others, mainly border guards, have been convicted since Germany’s 1990 reunification. Most have received suspended sentences. All together, 160 people have been charged and still face trial in connection with the deaths.

``I think the wall trials should continue, so the families who suffered can continue to publicize the injustices,″ said Klaus-Peter Eich, 56, who was shot in the back trying to escape from East Berlin in 1961.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Eich attended the trial in a wheelchair.

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