BERLIN -- In a decision effectively nullifying government attempts to bring a prominent East German leader to justice, a court decided yesterday that former union boss Harry Tisch has spent too much time in jail already.
Tisch, 64, former member of the East German Politburo and leader of the Free German Federation of Labor, was sentenced by the court to 18 months in prison for spending $10,000 in union fees on private vacations.
Tisch has spent just over a year in jail, and because he is entitled to serve half the 18-month sentence free on parole, he actually has spent three months too long in jail.
"This clearly proves our point -- this was a political trial by West German authorities trying to get revenge," said Hubert Dreyling, his defense attorney.
Tisch said he would apply for compensation for the extra jail time, and experts believe that he could receive several thousand dollars.
The decision appeared to ruin German attempts to bring about 200 other former East German leaders to trial by pinning economic crimes on them. By successfully using the legal principle that the accused can only be judged by the laws that applied at the time an act was committed, Tisch's defense destroyed the government's hope of putting many Communist officials behind bars.
Several citizens' groups, however, expressed outrage at the Tisch decision. While many Communist Party victims continue to do without compensation, Tisch is free and other top leaders have little to worry about, said Marga Langendorf, head of a union of East German victims.
Tisch said politicians were pressing for him and others to stand trial because of these calls for revenge.
"I can't be held responsible for what happened in East Germany. They tried to make me into a scapegoat to satisfy media-provoked anger," Tisch said.
The government originally charged Tisch with spending $71 million of union funds on a Communist Party youth festival in 1984 and with having spent $10,000 from the union's till on vacations.
Tisch's lawyers argued, however, that shifting funds from a union to a party youth account may be illegal under Western laws but was not illegal in East Germany, where most property was public property.
Chief Judge Hans-Juergen Herdemerten agreed, and in a preliminary decision last month he released Tisch from pretrial detention. This left only the $10,000 misappropriations charge that resulted in yesterday's 18-month sentence.
Legal experts believe that the case is significant for Eastern Europeans' attempts to bring former Communist rulers to trial. Except for a few people who may have ordered arrests, few broke their countries' criminal laws.
Of the main East German leaders, top leader Erich Honecker is in Moscow, and Erich Mielke, chief of the Stasi secret police, has been declared too sick to stand trial.