East German prosecutors placed ousted Communist leader Erich Honecker under investigation for murder Friday in the deaths of hundreds of East Germans killed trying to escape across the heavily fortified border during his 13-year regime.
Border guards also could face charges for carrying out Honecker’s orders, according to a statement issued by chief prosecutor Guenter Seidel.
The official news agency ADN said the investigation was launched “in connection with the shoot-to-kill policy and the use of automatic firing devices and mines on the frontier.”
A murder conviction could send the ailing Honecker, 77, to prison for the rest of his life.
The prosecutor’s office did not specify how many deaths were involved, but the West German government has estimated that a total of 201 people were killed trying to flee East Germany.
Of those, 80 died trying to breach the Berlin Wall, some of them just teen-agers.
After the Wall went up on Aug. 13, 1961, about 14,000 East Germans made it across the deadly inner-German border, according to the Bonn government. Escape attempts were both desperate and dramatic. One man built a tiny submarine in which he sailed to freedom across Berlin’s Spree River. Another spent years secretly piecing together a hot-air balloon from rags.
Seidel’s statement said Honecker could be held directly responsible for the deaths because of his role as chairman of the National Defense Council, which oversaw East Germany’s armed forces.
Since his ouster in a peaceful revolution last autumn, Honecker and his top lieutenants have been accused of corruption and mismanagement, but prosecutors said the men were too old, too ill or too senile to stand trial.
Honecker lives as a virtual recluse at a Soviet military hospital outside East Berlin, where he reportedly is receiving treatment for cancer and a kidney tumor.
He issued no public statement following Friday’s announcement by the prosecutor.
West German prosecutors recently announced that they are investigating Honecker for allegedly harboring fugitive terrorists wanted for a string of assassinations, bombings and kidnapings in the West.
Eight former members of the leftist Red Army Faction have been arrested in East Germany in the past few weeks. They allegedly were given new identities, jobs and apartments by Honecker’s defunct secret police. Honecker has denied any role in protecting them.
Honecker, who supervised construction of the Berlin Wall and declared just weeks before it fell that it would stand for 100 years, is the only hard-line leader from the old East Bloc to face murder charges.
Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, were executed last Christmas after a secret trial for genocide.
One of the most controversial border booby traps was what East Germany called “the self-shooting device,” which sprayed shrapnel at escapees who tripped hidden wires. The devices were removed in 1983-84 after West Germany provided East Germany a 1-million-mark line of credit.
But escapees were still liable to be shot to death by border guards. The last slaying was of a 20-year-old waiter in March, 1989.