BERLIN - Three aging men who once helped run communist East Germany were cleared Friday of manslaughter charges in the deaths of citizens trying to breach the Berlin Wall, a surprise verdict that outraged former democracy activists.
Prosecutors said they would appeal, keeping open what is likely to be the last case against former East German leaders. It was the first acquittal of former senior officials on trial for the shoot-to-kill border policy, imposed to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West during the Cold War.
The defense had argued for acquittal because the defendants had broken no laws under the then-communist government.
Prosecutors argued that Siegfried Lorenz, Hans-Joachim Boehme and Herbert Haeber bore responsibility for deaths between 1984 and 1989 because they were in a position to prevent them as members of the ruling communist Politburo.
But presiding judge Hans Luther ruled that their positions were not enough to convict them in the Berlin state court. ''They were simply passive, no more and no less,'' he said.
The ruling contrasted with convictions last November in similar cases involving Egon Krenz, the last communist East German leader and the man in charge when the Wall opened on Nov. 9, 1989, as well as two other former Politburo members. All three were convicted of manslaughter for deaths at the Wall and are serving prison terms of up to 6 1/2 years.
In that case, the court ruled that the three former leaders had actively contributed to the deaths by drafting or endorsing Politburo decisions on border policy.
A group of former East German democracy activists, known as the Citizens' Bureau, condemned Friday's verdict as ''scandalous.'' In a statement, they said it failed to provide justice for victims of ''murderous decisions'' by the communist regime.
Hans Modrow, East Germany's last Stalinist premier and still active in the successor party to the former East German Communist Party, hailed the ruling. ''It would have been the peak of absurdity had the three been convicted,'' he said.
Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Lorenz, 69, and Boehme, 70, to two years and nine months in prison on three charges of manslaughter for deaths at the Wall.
The deaths include that of Chris Gueffroy, 20, the last person to die trying to flee - seven months before communist authorities opened the Wall under pressure from the streets.
Prosecutors had sought two years in jail on four manslaughter counts for Haeber, 69, who had testified that he had proposed to the Politburo in 1984 to open the Wall so East Germans could travel.
Boehme and Lorenz joined the Politburo in 1986, after most decisions how to fortify the East German border had been made. Haeber participated in a 1985 meeting that discussed border security, but claims he was kicked out of the Politburo after just 14 months because he argued for opening the Wall.