Germans end inquiry into East's abuses

Reunification squad examined 20,000 cases from Cold War years

January 01, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN - Germans proudly passed a post-unification milestone yesterday by shuttering a police investigative unit that sought to bring communist abusers to justice, from sports officials who doped young athletes into ill health and infamy to border guards who shot at those trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.

Declaring its work done, the Central Investigative Office for Government and Unification Crimes quietly slipped into history after nine years and more than 20,000 cases taken up on behalf of citizens of the former East Germany who were victims of the Cold War-era regime's physical, psychological and financial abuse.

"We have always understood our work to be for the victims of the East German regime," longtime chief investigator Manfred Kittlaus told journalists as his 700 colleagues in the agency, known by its acronym, ZERV, prepared to return to the state police units to which they once belonged.

When the agency was founded Sept. 1, 1991, the investigators were charged with "fulfilling the national demand for comprehensive responsibility."

ZERV evidence and testimony played roles in trials of the communist regime's most infamous stalwarts, from proceedings against East German leader Erich Honecker, who died in exile in Chile in 1994, to the last Communist Party chairman, Egon Krenz, whose 6 1/2 -year sentence for crimes against the people was upheld months ago.

Krenz was among those members of the East German Politburo held accountable for dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries and incarcerations of citizens caught trying to flee across the barbed wire and booby traps on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

But it was probably the nuts-and-bolts police work involved in bringing former East German sports authorities to justice that represented the office's most significant accomplishment.

On the strength of 9,000 interviews with sports figures who helped propel the communist state to prominence in Olympic competitions, ZERV evidence led to the convictions of 107 coaches, trainers and officials who pushed anabolic steroids and other banned performance-enhancement drugs on their athletes. Many of the athletes today suffer disfigurement and illnesses.

In the most notorious case, former East German Sports Minister Manfred Ewald and sports medical chief Manfred Hoeppner were sentenced in July for systematically damaging the athletes in their charge. The 74-year-old Ewald was sentenced to 22 months in prison, and 66-year-old Hoeppner drew an 18-month term, although both were suspended in view of the defendants' age and infirmity.

Less well-known was the police agency's role in tracking down communist-era officials whose legal manipulations allowed them to steal the property and resources of the state. ZERV investigated more than 4,000 cases of economic crime, recovering state assets worth more than $1.2 billion from the defendants.

"With the closing of ZERV, a chapter in German history comes to an end that has significance for all Germany," Berlin Interior Minister Eckart Werthebach observed as the agency ceremonially unscrewed the identifying plaque from its headquarters.

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