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East Germany’s last communist leader convicted in border shootings

August 25, 1997

BERLIN (AP) _ A Berlin court convicted East Germany’s last communist leader and two party comrades of manslaughter today in the shooting deaths of people trying to flee to the West.

The verdicts against Egon Krenz and the others mark the first time former members of the East German leadership have been held accountable for the hundreds of people killed at the East German border.

The trial was likely to be the last high-profile proceeding against former East German leaders. Other trials since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have dealt only with border guards and military leaders. Most other major figures have either died or been declared physically unfit for trial.

Krenz, who succeeded Erich Honecker as communist boss in October 1989 and gave into public pressure to open the Wall a month later, was convicted of four counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.

The co-defendants, former East Berlin communist chief Guenter Schabowski, 67, and economics expert Guenter Kleiber, 65, were convicted of three counts of manslaughter each and sentenced to three years in prison.

Three other Politburo members had been dropped from the proceedings due to illness.

Krenz, 60, sat with his chin in his hand during the reading of the verdict and did not visibly react. A small group of his supporters in the courtroom booed when the judge ordered Krenz jailed immediately because he was considered a high flight risk.

No date was set for the others to report to prison.

Krenz, a Politburo member since late 1983, was security chief in 1989 before succeeding Honecker as communist boss. His political career ended and he was kicked out of the party two months after he opened 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″ and a ``new German version of McCarthyistic persecution.″

The sentence was considerably less than the 11 years prosecutors had called for against the Krenz. Most of about 100 people who had gathered outside the courtroom complained it was 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 to freedom from East Germany and spent nearly four years in prison. ``He should be spending life in prison.″

Authorities say at least 916 people were killed trying to escape East Germany during its 41 years of existence, 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.

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 in connection with the deaths.

A government spokesman in Berlin welcomed the verdict.

``An independent court _ not a political authority _ resolved the question of guilt in a two-year trial,″ Michael-Andreas Butz said. ``That is exactly the decisive difference between the Federal Republic of Germany’s rule of law and the administration of justice in the former East Germany.″

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