BERLIN -- Although former East German leader Erich Honecker probably will arrive in Germany shortly to stand trial, officials and experts say it is doubtful that he or any other top Communists will sit very long in prison.
Mr. Honecker, 79, was smuggled to Moscow in March by hard-line Soviet military friends who wanted to help him avoid prosecution. Their defeat in the unsuccessful Soviet coup last month ended their protection of him.
German Justice Minister Klaus Kinkel said Friday that he expected German extradition requests to be honored and that he expected Mr. Honecker to arrive in Germany perhaps as early as this week.
The arrival of Mr. Honecker, who built the Berlin Wall and ruled East Germany for 18 years, until 1989, is eagerly anticipated.
"We can't just prosecute the little fish. The big fish have to be brought to justice, too," said Jutta Limbach, who heads Berlin's Justice Ministry.
But recent cases against other top leaders indicate that if Mr. Honecker is brought to trial, he probably will not be convicted of any significant crime and could even escape prosecution because of his bad health.
"Thus far, no one else has been convicted, and anyway, Honecker is old, sick and didn't do anything illegal under East German law," said his former attorney, Friedrich Wolf.
That view is shared privately by attorneys in the Berlin Justice Ministry, who have been trying to prosecute Mr. Honecker and other East German leaders since last year.
"There's an unwillingness to tackle this problem. People in this office see it as a waste of time -- something that has to be done but that won't be successful in the end," one ministry official said.
Officially, ministry representatives still say they are eager to prosecute Mr. Honecker, but the history of his case and those of other top leaders suggests it will be difficult to pin a charge on him that will stick.
Mr. Honecker faces a life sentence for his order requiring East German border guards to shoot citizens trying to leave the country. More than 200 deaths are said to have resulted from the order.
However, Mr. Wolf said Mr. Honecker violated no East German laws in endorsing the shoot-to-kill policy. He said the former leaders were protected by the legal principle that they could be judged only by the laws that applied at the time the act was committed.
"There was no secret law passed. It was a part of the country's security policy and, as a member of the Warsaw Pact [military alliance], part of its legal obligation," Mr. Wolf said.
That such a defense can succeed was demonstrated in the recent trial of Harry Tisch, who ran East Germany's all-powerful and pervasive unions. Mr. Tisch's job gave him control over the fates of millions of workers, and many people think he ruined the careers of opponents of the government. In addition, he was charged with misappropriating millions of dollars from the unions' pension fund.
However, because none of the actions he was charged with was illegal under East German law, the judge threw the charges out. In the end, Mr. Tisch was sentenced to 18 months in prison but, because he had already spent that long in pretrial detention, was released immediately.
An even more hated figure than Mr. Tisch was Erich Mielke, 83, former chief of the Stasi secret police. He was to have been charged with incitement to perversion of justice, breach of trust and various minor corruption charges. The first two charges, which had to do with his work as Stasi boss, were thrown out for lack of evidence.
Later, Mr. Mielke was found to be medically incompetent to stand trial.
Whatever the outcome in Mr. Honecker's case, it will be a humiliating end for a man who showed courage as a resistance fighter against the Nazis during World War II but went on to build the Berlin Wall and preside over his country's economic and political ruin.