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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German 'Human Trafficker' Found Guilty

BERLIN -- Wolfgang Vogel, the shadowy East German lawyer who traded captured American spies and Soviet dissidents during the Cold War for communist agents caught in the West, was found guilty of extorting money from East German emigrants trying to flee to the West by a German court Tuesday.

Vogel, who epitomized the term "devil's advocate" for helping East German dissidents and emigrants leave the communist nation in exchange for signing over their property for rock-bottom prices, was found guilty of perjury, four counts of blackmail and five counts of falsifying documents. He received a two-year suspended sentence and was fined 92,000 Deutsche marks ($63,500).

Insisting that he had only been trying to help people leave East Germany, Vogel became one of the few millionaires in the communist world by carving out a position for himself as a trusted and respected middleman for both the East and West. Vogel, 70, who spent the last 30 years of the Cold War moving freely in his Mercedes-Benz back and forth across the Berlin Wall, was a welcome guest in the corridors of power not only in Bonn and East Berlin but in Washington and Moscow.

Although he was condemned as an unsavory agent in human trafficking by some, others praised him as a courageous go-between.

"We knew he was trafficking in humans," said Klaus Boelling, West Germany's representative to East German during the 1980s, in an interview with German radio after the verdict was announced. "But no matter how distasteful this might have been, we had no alternative. He had this important function, without which the Cold War in Germany would have been even colder."

Vogel helped nearly a quarter million East Germans leave the communist state. But the price was high -- the West German government paid 3.5 billion marks over almost 30 years. The rates, based on a formula that took into account the would-be emigrants' education and age, ranged from 40,000 marks per person in the 1970s to twice that amount a decade later.

The emigrants were also often forced by Vogel, prosecutors charged, to surrender their property and belongings to the state for unrealistically low prices. There were also accusations that he charged enormous fees for his services.

"The court said for the record that I helped people," said Vogel, trying to remain upbeat after Judge Heinz Holzinger read the verdict in a packed courtroom. "That is my consolation. An extortionist cannot help people. If I had to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

All together Vogel arranged the release of more than 100 spies in the East and West, most of whom walked past each other over Berlin's Glienicke Bridge that once straddled the Iron Curtain.

Vogel's conviction was a triumph for German prosecutors, who had failed in numerous attempts to convict former East German leaders for Cold War-era crimes.