Expedite the pending cases of Nazi war criminals

If anyone needed a reminder about how critical it is these days to expedite the pending cases of Nazi war criminals, we received two such urgent messages late last month.

Man gives Nazi salute  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Man gives Nazi salute
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If anyone needed a reminder about how critical it is these days to expedite the pending cases of Nazi war criminals, we received two such urgent messages late last month. The first was the announcement by the Hamburg prosecutor that Gerhard Sommer, the number one suspect on our Most Wanted list, would not face charges for his role in the murder of at least 324 civilians in the Italian town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in Tuscany because he was suffering from severe dementia. The second was the news that Vladimir Katriuk, the number two suspect on our Most Wanted list, who was under investigation for his role in the massacre of nearly 200 civilians in the Belarussian village of Khatyn, and in the murder of Jewish partisans in the Naliboki Forest (also in Belarus), had died three weeks previously and consequently would never stand trial or be punished for his crimes.
On the surface, these cases have a lot in common. For starters, they are both part of the greater saga of World War II and the Holocaust and are obvious examples of Nazi war crimes against innocent civilians.
In both cases, the investigations started many years ago. Sommer has been under investigation for approximately 13 years and the Canadian authorities began proceedings for Katriuk’s denaturalization in the early 1990s, but for reasons not exactly clear to the public in neither case were the local authorities able to achieve a conviction, let alone punishment. Another similarity between the two cases was that the alleged crimes took place in foreign lands, not in the country of origin or of recent residence of the suspects.
In addition, in both cases serious efforts were made by foreign countries to bring the suspects to justice, in Sommer’s case by Italy, the country in which he committed his crimes, and in Katriuk’s case by Russia, which had ruled the area where his crimes were committed prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Thus Sommer was convicted and sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by an Italian military court in La Spezia on June 25, 2005 for committing “murder with special cruelty,” and Russia recently asked Canada for Katriuk’s extradition to prosecute him for the crimes he committed in Belarus.
The differences between the two cases were legal and historical. In Germany, Sommer was being investigated on criminal charges for the mass murder of Italian civilians, a crime not connected to the Holocaust.
Katriuk, on the other hand, was accused of participation in the murder of Jews and non-Jews and was facing civil charges of immigration violations rather than criminal charges based on the crimes themselves.
(Canada, which had initially passed legislation to provide for criminal prosecution of Nazi war criminals, switched in 1994 to civil remedies – as was the case from the beginning in the United States – when Canadian courts accepted the superior orders defense rejected everywhere else in the world, in the case of Hungarian gendarmerie captain Imre Finta.) In theory, that should have made successfully prosecuting him much easier, but that did not prove to be the case.
Thus the legal efforts in both countries ultimately failed. Germany refused to extradite Sommer to stand trial in Italy, nor was it willing to implement the La Spezia verdict against him. He remained under investigation in Hamburg, where the prosecution was able to determine his personal criminal responsibility in the massacre carried out by his unit, the 16th Panzergrenadier Division Reichsfuehrer SS, a fact specifically mentioned by the prosecutor in his statement announcing that he was closing the case due to Sommer’s advanced dementia. In the Katriuk case, although a Canadian court ruled in 1999 that he had obtained citizenship under false pretenses, which in theory should have been sufficient to strip him of his citizenship, the fact that the court was not presented with any evidence that he had personally committed atrocities spared him from punishment. It was only nine years later in 2008 that the pertinent evidence was declassified and subsequently found by Swedish historian Per Rudling, who found proof that Katriuk had been a “particularly active participant” in the atrocity in Khatyn.
That should have sealed Katriuk’s fate, but in Ottawa as in Hamburg there apparently was no rush to bring these cases to a successful conclusion, and thus each suspect slipped through the cracks of the judicial process and eluded justice, a lucky fate which neither deserved.
These failures clearly underscore the urgent necessity to expedite these cases, in order to maximize justice while still possible. That is the minimum that the victims and their families clearly deserve.
The author is Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – Israel office and Eastern European Affairs Coordinator, SWC Nazi war crimes research worldwide.