Erich Mielke, the former chief of East Germany's despised secret police, the Stasi, was quietly released from prison Tuesday, ending one of the most bizarre, troubling chapters in the annals of modern German criminal law.
With Mielke's release, not a single member of the top leadership of the East German Communist Party remains in custody. Complaints are still outstanding against a few other former senior officials. But there are no arrest warrants and little public expectation that the unified German courts will suddenly seize on ways of dispensing justice in cases of East German repression and human rights violations.
Although Mielke was considered the second most powerful man in the East German regime and was blamed, among other things, for the shooting deaths of would-be escapees at the old East-West border, German authorities have been unable to prosecute him for any of his alleged wrongdoing in East German times.
The only crime of which he was convicted was the 1931 murder of two Berlin police officers during a street brawl in the chaotic final years of the Weimar Republic--and even his sentence for that was challenged on legal and moral grounds.
Mielke's release means that the driving force behind some of East Germany's gravest trespasses against its own people will now never be held accountable for his official conduct.
Berlin public prosecutor Hans-Juergen Karge said this week that he was "not prepared to chase the 87-year-old anymore" and wouldn't fight the decision by the Berlin state court to free the former spy boss.
As of Tuesday, Mielke had served 1,904 days in prison and had become Germany's oldest known inmate. Parole officials had urged his release because he had served more than two-thirds of his six-year sentence for the 1931 killings and because they were convinced he had a "positive social prognosis."
There was also concern about imprisoning a man in Mielke's apparently failing mental state. "He is totally confused," said his lawyer, Hubert Dreyling, who had visited Mielke before his release Tuesday.
During legal proceedings against Mielke, there were repeated accusations that he was faking senility to avoid prosecution. But others are convinced his confusion is real. In one widely publicized episode, the former Stasi chief apparently mistook the judge hearing his case for a prison barber.
And in his widely watched trial for the 1931 slayings, Mielke made court appearances in a peculiar, fake-leather hat, moaned audibly from behind the bullet-proof glass of the dock and slouched so low in his chair that at one point only his hat was visible above the defense's tabletop.
Mielke will reportedly receive a modest pension from the German government.
A committed, lifelong Communist, Mielke fought with Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, survived the Nazi years under a pseudonym in Belgium and returned to Berlin after World War II to become a police chief in what would eventually be walled-off East Berlin. He quickly rose in the East German security apparatus, becoming the minister in 1957 and a Politburo member in 1976.
He built the East Bloc's most pervasive secret-police apparatus, with a full-time staff of 85,000 plus as many as 260,000 part-time informants spying on neighbors, colleagues and spouses. Of East Germany's total population of 17 million, the Stasi kept files on 5.5 million.
He was arrested soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, and charged with a number of offenses, including manslaughter in the slaying of six East Germans who were shot as they tried to flee to the West across the heavily guarded border.
In total, several hundred East Germans were killed making such escape attempts. But in November, 1994, the judge presiding over that trial abandoned the proceedings, saying he was convinced Mielke was unfit to stand trial.