A Spanish judge announced indictments on Thursday afternoon against three former Nazi death camp guards for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The three men - Johann Leprich, Anton Tittjung and Josias Kumpf - were charged in absentia for their participation in the killing of Spanish prisoners during World War II.
Judge Ismael Moreno of the Spanish National Court issued international arrest warrants for Leprich and Tittjung, both living in the United States, and Kumpf, who currently resides in Austria, demanding their immediate extradition to face war-crime prosecution in Spain.
Moreno will charge the 84-year-old men under Spain's observation of universal jurisdiction. This principle allows for Spain to claim criminal jurisdiction over the men, regardless of their nationality or country of residence, even though the crimes occurred outside of Spain.
Cases of universal jurisdiction usually occur for crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, terrorism and forced disappearances.
Moreno concluded that the three men had indeed been members of the Nazis' Totenkopf SS and had served as armed guards in the concentration camps of Mauthaussen and Sachsenhausen. According to the Spanish judge, approximately 4,300 of 7,000 Spaniards incarcerated in Mauthaussen died.
The case began on June 19, 2008, when a criminal lawsuit was presented to the National Court by two Spanish World War II survivors. The case was focused on bringing four Nazi SS guards to trial for their crimes. The fourth guard, retired Detroit auto worker John Demjanjuk, will not be included, as he has already been charged and was extradited by Germany in May.
"This is an amazing turnabout for Spain... the court deserves major credit," remarked Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem.
Zuroff pointed out that Spain had once been a haven for Nazi war-criminals. The first change in Spanish policy regarding attempts to track down Nazi criminals was with Nazi physician Dr. Aribert Heim in 2005. Heim murdered prisoners at the Mauthaussen camp and was thought to be hiding in Spain. After an international warrant was issued for his arrest, the Spanish authorities made a concerted effort to hunt him down. While the authorities did not find him, the current case demonstrates that Spain is continuing to pursue prosecution of genocide and war crimes against Spaniards, Zuroff said.
Zuroff expects the men to be extradited to Spain quickly, and that the trial for their crimes will commence by the beginning of 2010.
"Each country has an interest in extraditing them, due to the fact that both the United States and Austria face limitations of prosecution," said Zuroff.
Austria cannot charge Kumpf due to a statute of limitations clause, since the crimes occurred too long ago, and the United States is unable to prosecute him because it does not adhere to universal jurisdiction.
Zuroff noted that "the United States has been trying for 60 years to deport all four individuals for lying on their immigration papers regarding their Nazi past, although no country has been willing to accept them."
According to an article in the Detroit News by Charlie LeDuff on September 3, Leprich has managed to avoid deportation for almost 50 years.
Despite having already been ordered deported by the US for lying about his Nazi past, Leprich originally entered the country illegally in 1952 and was given American citizenship in 1958. LeDuff discovered that Leprich had his citizenship stripped in 1987 by a Detroit immigration judge for dishonest representation of his personal history as a Nazi death camp guard. However, immigration authorities released him, and he subsequently fled. Soon thereafter, he returned to his normal Michigan lifestyle, despite the possibility of domestic arrest or foreign extradition and prosecution.
Sixteen years later, federal agents again arrested Leprich and held him for three years, waiting for any country to request his extradition. No such requests came, and Leprich was again released in 2006.
Two weeks ago, with the Spanish indictment and arrest warrant looming, LeDuff discovered that Leprich had long since disappeared from his home in Clinton Township, Michigan, with neighbors claiming they had not seem him around for months.
Tittjung lives in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and Kumpf made his home in Racine, Wisconsin, but has apparently since disappeared to Austria.
AP contributed to this report.