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Court convicts a former Communist leader

In 14 years as head of the 10-million-member communist unions, Harry Tisch, a member of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, turned the unions into a highly refined machine for carrying out party policy. On Thursday, a Berlin court convicted him of corruption, in the first trial of a Communist leader here since East Germany and West Germany were reunited last October.

Tisch, 64, was found guilty of misappropriating funds and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The judge said he might suspend the sentence.

The court found Tisch guilty of having spent $46,000 for vacations in union-owned holiday homes for himself and his family and for the former economic czar, Guenther Mittag.

The court acquitted Tisch of charges he illegally used $19-million of union funds to stage a festival in 1984 for a youth group that supported the ruling Communists.

Authorities allege the hard-line Communists routinely plundered East Germany's meager finances, to provide luxuries for themselves, friends and families.

Millions of dollars worth of money allegedly was misused or smuggled out of the country. Much of it remains unaccounted for.

Handing down its verdict at the close of the four-month trial, the court anticipated disappointment over the relatively mild sentence among eastern Germans, who widely viewed the proceedings as a first reckoning with the communist past. In a statement read before the sentencing, the chief judge, Hans-Juergen Herdemerten, addressing the "people of eastern Germany," declared that the court could "not fulfill political expectations."

Several other top-ranking members of Erich Honecker's fallen regime are awaiting trial on charges of complicity in the deaths of at least 200 East Germans shot while trying to flee to the West.

Honecker, 78, has been charged with issuing the shoot-to-kill orders, but the Soviets secretly moved him to Moscow on March 13, and he refuses to return.

_ Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.