Victim Of East German Communism Sues Party

August 16, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing Writer

BERLIN -- As he drove his car through the East Berlin street toward the border crossing, Kuo Xinghu thought of the new apartment he was going to rent in West Berlin.

It was 1965, and his employers in the Chinese Embassy had given him permission to leave the East, where Chinese people had become targets of harassment as the Sino-Soviet rivalry intensified. Gliding his black Mercedes toward the border that he had crossed dozens of times before, his mind wandered to the details he had to sort out that evening: where to live, how much rent to pay, what furniture to buy.

Suddenly, his plans collapsed. Only a few dozen yards from the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, three cars screeched to a stop beside and in front of him. Men jumped out and announced: "State security. You're under arrest."

Seven years later, Mr. Kuo was released from custody and emigrated to West Germany. Though 34, he said he felt "about 70 years old" -- he was partially deaf and had suffered beatings, kickings and racial taunts.

Now, 20 years later, in the first civil suit filed by a victim of East German communism, Mr. Kuo wants compensation for his two years in prison and five years of forced labor. And in another novel twist to the case, Mr. Kuo is not suing the unified German government, which is the legal successor to East Germany, but the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former East German party of Communists.

The suit could cost the born-again Communists dearly -- $800,000, which Mr. Kuo says would compensate him for the time in jail, the physical disabilities and the forced labor. The case could be heard this fall and is being closely watched by victims organizations, which hope that a victory by Mr. Kuo could set a precedent for their thousands of members.

Faced with such a mountain of costly claims, the Party of Democratic Socialism has dissociated itself from its actions before 1990 when it had another name, the Socialist Unity Party.

"This has nothing to do with us, and anyway, others have tried this but given up," said Horst Siebeck, spokesman for the party.

But unlike most victims, Mr. Kuo is pressing forward, having spent $2,000 on the case already, according to his attorney.

Mr, Kuo, now a publisher and author of a successful book on his experiences in the East, said he thought it was his duty to pursue the case as one of the rare victims who could afford it.

Most victims of East Germany's Stalinist system never made it to the West. Even if they survived the brutal prison stay, they were deprived of their profession and now have little money to challenge the wealthy Party of Democratic Socialism.

Another reason for his challenge, Mr. Kuo said, is that his unjust imprisonment was closely linked to the Communists' party. While the Party of Democratic Socialism maintains that when it ran the one-party East German state it wasn't involved in the legal system and so can't be held responsible for miscarriages of justice, Mr. Kuo argues that as a Chinese citizen his case had such diplomatic impact that the ruling party must have been involved.

His arrest, he believes, was linked to the deteriorating relations between China and the Soviet Union, East Germany's patron. All Chinese people in the East bloc were harassed, Mr. Kuo said, and the East German Communists were bent on convicting him to humiliate the Chinese Communists.

He said that his colleagues from the embassy, where he had worked as a translator without diplomatic immunity, were pressured into making false confessions. He himself was regularly beaten.

A Berlin court fully rehabilitated Mr. Kuo last summer, ruling that he had not been a spy.

While admitting that thousands of people like Mr. Kuo suffered under the old system, Mr. Siebeck said the Party of Democratic Socialism has changed so much that it now even lobbies for the victims. He pointed out that the German government recently decided to pay victims such as Mr. Kuo $100 per month of confinement.

Under this new law, which has been criticized for paying only half the standard compensation that western Germans receive for unjust imprisonment, Mr. Kuo would get $8,400.

But Mr. Kuo, who was released in 1972 under a West German program that involved paying East Germany ransom to release political prisoners, said the political party and not German taxpayers should be punished.

"I want the people to pay who caused me this suffering," said Mr. Kuo, now a naturalized German citizen and publisher of books on human rights. "The German taxpayers shouldn't pay. The PDS should."

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