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Germany: Rights Court Denies Final Appeal Of Former East German Leader

  • Roland Eggleston

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday dismissed an appeal by Egon Krenz -- the last leader of communist East Germany -- and others of their convictions in the killings of people fleeing across the border to the West. The court ruled that the killings violated the general legal principles recognized by civilized nations, and therefore were illegal. German commentators say the ruling has important legal implications for other authoritarian regimes. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Egon Krenz, the last state and party leader of East Germany, had appealed a 1997 conviction for his role in imposing a shoot-to-kill order at the Berlin Wall. At the time, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg heard evidence that at least 916 East Germans were killed -- either by gunfire or by stepping on mines -- while trying to flee to the West.

Krenz argued to the human rights court, as he had previously in German courts, that he was a victim of so-called "winner's justice." He said that because the shoot-to-kill law was legal in communist East Germany, he should not be judged under West German laws.

Krenz's argument has often been used by other former East German officials, but has almost always been rejected by the courts of united Germany. Had it been accepted yesterday by the European rights court, it might have meant reopening a number of previously settled cases.

But the human rights court -- a major organ of the Council of Europe -- upheld the decisions made by the German courts regarding Krenz and his three co-defendants. They are former East German Defense Minister Heinz Kessler, his deputy Fritz Streletz. and a border guard identified only as Mr. W.

The Strasbourg court ruled that the shoot-to-kill order violated a section in the European Convention on Human Rights, which stipulates that people can be tried and punished for actions deemed criminal "according to the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations."

The court went on to say that the border killings were in fact a violation of East German law as well. Legal expert Hannes Riester said the court's ruling means that the protection of human life was among the provisions of East Germany's Constitution and a number of its laws: "The protection of human life was part of the [East German] Constitution and various East German laws. The accused held high posts in the state apparatus of [East Germany] and therefore were aware of [its] obligations under constitutional and international law."

The European court also referred to a 1989 decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, stating that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." East Germany was among the countries which signed the OSCE agreement.

The European court was the final hope for Krenz, who must now complete the remaining three years of his prison sentence. The ruling was largely symbolic for the remaining three co-defendants, who were all released from prison three years ago on the grounds of age and ill health.

Krenz called yesterday's ruling a judgment, but not justice. He said he believed the European court's decision was politically motivated:

"I am realistic. I could not expect a decision would be made free of political influence. So I must live with this sentence."

German legal experts said the human rights court's ruling is significant on several counts. First, they said, it sends a message that a state which undermines its own laws cannot claim immunity and that those in high government office are directly responsible for the actions of the regime they represent.

The experts also said the ruling means that it is now legitimate for a democratic state to institute criminal proceedings against defendants accused of committing offenses under defunct regimes which previously disregarded the rule of law.

The Strasbourg court also found that even subordinates acting on shoot-to-kill orders cannot justify their acts. But it modified the ruling by expressly distinguishing between the responsibility of government officials and that of border soldiers following orders.

In fact, Ingo Heinrich -- the last East German soldier to kill a person attempting to cross the border -- was put on probation without a prison sentence following his trial several years ago.

Legal expert Riester said yesterday's ruling had broad implications:

"The ruling from Strasbourg goes beyond the case of Krenz and should also be understood as a signal to other European countries."

The final word came from a member of the German Justice Ministry who did not wish to be identified. He pointed out that Krenz' imprisonment is largely symbolic, because he spends only his nights in a Berlin jail. During the daytime, he works for a company which does business with Russia.