Friday, 21 May 2010

The Judgement in Berlin film and legal case

Occasionally I came across an unexpected and brilliant film on one of the Sky free channels which I cannot remember seeing before. Judgement in Berlin is what it says, a Legal Judgement in the City of Berlin but based on a true story.

On 30th August 1979 two East Germans used a starting pistol, not an actual gun, to hijack a Polish passenger aircraft bound for East Berlin and instead diverted it to the USAF base, Tempelhof airport in West Berlin and requested political asylum. A number of the other passenger on the plan joined them and were granted the asylum. In the film the gun is presented as a toy gun smuggled on to the plane by the daughter of one of the hijackers.

In addition to the film my sources is a Wikipedia note on the book written by the presiding judge USA Federal Herbert Jay Stern, who with his wife had lost relatives through German genocide and who was appointed on the assumption that with confessions he would regard the case as open and shut and an provide sentences as required by the State and Justice Departments. The part is played by West Wing Michael Sheen in the film. This was supplanted by an detailed analysis of the actual case by Professor Andreas Teuber, in a work on the Philosophy of Law.

Until this incident anyone making it across the border was granted asylum but the USA government had only recently negotiated a treaty with the Russians over hijacking and wanted to cooperate not only by prosecuting but then allowing the extradition of those convicted back to the Soviets. According to his book and the film the Judge resisted State department and Russian pressure several instances, over holding a Jury Trial, over insisting that USA legal rights applied to the female defendant and then using his discretion over the sentences when the Jury agreed that the make defendant had taken a hostage but was not guilty of all the other charges,

The woman was Ingrid Ruske, a waitress in East Berlin, divorced with a small daughter, and in love with a West German engineer. They had planned to escape to West Berlin by boarding a Polish cruise ship in Gdansk with fake Western ID's. Ingrid, somewhat fearful, wanted someone else to try the strategy first. She remembered her former boyfriend, Hans Tiede, who was agreed to play guinea pig.

“Hans and Ingrid flew to Gdansk to wait for the engineer to bring them their ID's. He never came. East German agents had gotten wind of his efforts through their underground network in West Berlin and arrested him when he re-entered East Berlin. The would-be fugitives guessed what had happened. What to do now? Their own arrests could not be too far off, since the photographs on the engineer's fake ID's would clearly give them away. They couldn't stay in Poland much longer, since they had no money left. In fact, their only assets were the return tickets to East Berlin, which they had bought merely to avoid arousing suspicion.

Hans suggested hijacking the plane to West Berlin. Unfortunately, he had no weapon. As they aimlessly wandered through the streets of Gdansk. Ingrid's daughter drew their attention to a toy gun in a shop window. It looked real enough, Hans thought. He sold some of his clothing and bought the gun.

They got on the plane, LOT flight 65, quite easily, by putting the gun into the child's luggage. Airport security in fact searched their bags and found it, but thought nothing of it when they saw it was a toy. The moment of truth came when the pilot announced the plane's imminent landing at East Berlin's Schoenfeld Airport. Ingrid began to have second thoughts. Wouldn't the Gdansk control tower have told the pilot the gun was a toy? Hans brushed aside her reservations, ordered a stewardess at "gunpoint" to take him into the cockpit, stormed into the cockpit, keeping the stewardess with him as a "hostage," and ordered the crew to take the plane to West Berlin. There were 68 passengers on board the airplane. Everyone reacted calmly. The pilot checked with the East Berlin airport, then with the West Berlin airport and within a few minutes the plane had landed in West Berlin. By this time, Hans' relationship with the crew was almost cordial. He had told them why he did what he did, had passed around pictures of his wife and children, and by the time the police led him away the captain even flashed a thumbs-up sign. Before the plane took off again, eight other East Germans had decided to stay in West Berlin as well.

West Germany, East Germany, Poland, and the United States were all parties to an international agreement to prosecute hijackers. But West German authorities did not welcome the idea of prosecuting the case. The West German Constitution at the time made all Germans, including East Germans, West German citizens and gave them a "protected right" to enter West Germany. West Germany did not at the time recognize the validity of East German travel restrictions either. In fact, an East German body guard who shot and killed a fleeing East German was regarded under West German law at the time as having committed murder. Since the Americans continued to exercise the power of an occupying force in West Berlin, the West German authorities asked them to convene an American court to try the hijackers. The Americans obliged, setting up a special United States District Court of Berlin, Judge Herbert Stein of the United States District Court of New Jersey presiding.

Ingrid Ruske was never brought to trial. Her part in the hijacking was evidently minor. The only proof of her involvement was a statement she made to an interrogator. The judge ruled that the statement had been improperly obtained and ordered it suppressed. Stripped of its evidence, the prosecution withdrew the charges against her.

The case against Hans Tiede, however, went forward. He was charged with hijacking, taking a hostage, depriving other persons of their liberty, and doing bodily injury to a stewardess. Hans Tiede pleaded not guilty on grounds of necessity.

Tiede claimed that he was simply asserting his rights under the West German Constitution. At this time, prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the merger of East and West Germany into a single nation, the West German Constitution did not recognize the border between the two countries nor did it recognize the distinction between "East" and "West" Germans. An East German who successfully escaped from East to West was simply regarded by the West German constitution as a German citizen travelling within his or her own country. Tiede pointed out at his trial that he and Ingrid Ruske were threatened with imminent arrest by East German agents and that the only way for them to avoid arrest was to hijack the plane. Tiede also argued that he had secured not only his own and Ingrid Ruske's freedom but the freedom of eight other East Germans who seized the opportunity to defect. The USA Penal; code states: "The harm or evil sought to be avoided by [one's] conduct [must be] greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offence charged."

The prosecution argued that Tiede's conduct had indeed caused harm. By hijacking the plane he had "endangered the lives and safety of 68 innocent people" aboard Lot flight 165. The pilot had to land on an unfamiliar airport that was not designed for planes of the size of flight 165. He had also caused mortal anguish to the stewardess.

However at the trial the issue was raised if in fact he was a hijacker. When he left the plane and was led away across the tarmac the pilot gave him "a thumbs up sign." By the time the plane landed in West Berlin, Tiede's relationship with the crew had been cordial after he had told them why he did what he did and had passed around pictures of his wife and children. There was also evidence that he captain had known all along that he was carrying only a toy gun. He was not in fact a terrorist but a man desperate to join his Polish wife and two sons already in the West

The West Germans did not wish to try the case. They reminded the Americans that they were still an occupying force and therefore requested the USA to convene an American court to try Hans Tiede and Ingrid Ruske. A special United States District Court was set up in West Berlin where the trial was held. In the film the Judge insists in a jury trial which was drawn for West German citizens and had to be advised about the relationships of the charges and USA law. Steiner instructed the jury in the relevant rules of law. Given their decision to find Tiede not guilty of the hijacking charge it could be argued they were inconsistent to find him guilty of taking the air hostess hostage. I suspect they were influenced that at first she did not know the gun was fake would have been terrified and this was used to gain access to the pilot. Judge Steiner then decided that he would not grant the maximum sentence demanded by the prosecution but ordered time served, nine months to the date thus immediately releasing him to join his family. In the film Ingrid boyfriend is seen one side of a crossing point while she is on the other. It is not cleat if he was free to join her and if so if he had been imprisoned.

I was able to find this out from the German Paper Speigel who followed the story in terms of passengers who decided to return to East

“Some 32 years later, Ruske, who now uses her married name Maron, is sitting in a pub in the western part of Berlin. After the hijacking, she was charged with disrupting air traffic, but then the charges were dropped. Her lover, who had been captured by the Stasi, was sentenced to eight years in an East German prison for engaging in organized crime and for forgery of personal and border crossing documents. It wasn't until years later that he decided to marry Ruske. They separated after 11 years, and he died in 2006.”

Today Ruske says: "I had no expectations of the West, and it didn't even live up to those." She had had a happier life in East Berlin. Once she was in West Berlin, she trained to become a practitioner of alternative medicine and now provides acupuncture massage and hypnosis in her West Berlin apartment.

When Tiede was released from prison after a few months, he refused to talk about the hijacking unless he was paid to do so. His account eventually led to two novels, a film and a play about Aug. 30 and the period after that. Tiede has made a living from his story, which is the subject of a TV movie to be broadcast on the German broadcaster RTL this year. So I have gained some knowledge about what then happened to the two accused.

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