A Spanish judge indicted three alleged ex-Nazi death camp guards who are or were longtime residents of the United States, charging them Thursday with being accessories to genocide and crimes against humanity.
Judge Ismael Moreno of the National Court issued international arrest warrants for the three: Johann Leprich, Anton Tittjung and Josias Kumpf. The 18-page indictment says Kumpf apparently lives now in Austria and other two in the United States.
The judge acted in part under Spain's observance of the principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows particularly heinous crimes such as genocide, torture or terrorism to be prosecuted in Spain even if they are alleged to have been committed elsewhere.
He also acted because thousands of Spaniards were among the millions who died in Nazi concentration camps. Moreno has been investigating since July 2008 at the request of several Spaniards who survived their ordeals.
Moreno wrote Thursday that he has concluded the three suspects were members of the Nazis' Totenkopf SS guard corps and served in death camps, either Mauthausen in Nazi-occupied Austria or Sachsenhausen in Germany.
A fourth suspect named in the original complaint, retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, was deported from the United States to Germany in May and faces trial there. He is not included in the Spanish indictment.
Of the other three, Moreno said his probe turned up evidence that they "were members of the Totenkopf SS, served as armed guards in places designed for the persecution of persons for political, ethnic and racial reasons."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel said the Spanish indictment marks a huge change for a country it described as a refuge for Nazi war criminals when Gen. Francisco Franco was in power, and even after the return of democracy after his death in 1975.
"But this is obviously something completely different. This is a really welcome development," said the center's chief Nazi-hunter, Efraim Zuroff. "We commend the Spanish court for making this decision."
Tittjung, born in what is now Croatia, lives in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and Romanian-born Leprich lives near Detroit, Michigan. Both were born in 1925.
Kumpf, 84, was born in what is now Serbia and had lived in Racine, Wisconsin. But he was deported to Austria in March of this year.
All three men settled in the United States after World War II and eventually acquired US citizenship, but were stripped of it after US authorities concluded they had concealed their Nazi past. The United States has tried for years to deport them, but found no country willing to take them in.
Spanish judges have used the principle of universal justice to go after former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet in 1998 and Osama bin Laden in 2003, but extraditions and convictions have been extremely rare.
The cross-border cases have angered other countries recently and this summer Parliament narrowed the doctrine to cases involving Spaniard victims or when the alleged perpetrator of a crime is physically in Spain. But the change was not retroactive, so cases already on the books remained active.