The Hunt for Nazi War Criminals: Elderly Suspects Continue to Evade Justice
They committed their alleged crimes more than six decades ago but have escaped justice. Dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals are enjoying the twilight of their lives. For investigators into World War II atrocities, it is a race against time.
For Charles Zentai, Tuesday was a good day: His extradition from Australia to Hungary was halted at the last minute after the government in Budapest withdrew its opposition to the 87-year-old's application for bail. Zentai, who now lives in Perth, Western Australia, is suspected of having tortured and murdered the 18-year-old Hungarian Jew Peter Balazs in November 1944 and then dumping his body in the Danube River.
The Australian police had arrested Zentai in July 2005 -- but the trial and the decision about what to do with the elderly man were repeatedly postponed. It looks increasingly unlikely that he will ever face justice in a Hungarian court.
Zentai is just one of dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals around the world who have evaded justice. The cases are often postponed and eventually fall apart, because the accused is deemed not fit to stand trial, there are no more living witnesses or the relevant documents are now missing. Respected historians estimate that at least 200,000 Germans and Austrians were perpetrators in the Holocaust. German prosecutors have investigated 106,000 suspects, but only 6,500 were ever found guilty and sentenced -- a poor result.
One of the most recent failures was when a planned Nazi war crime trial in Germany collapsed in January. The regional court in Aachen, western Germany, proved unable to open a case against the former SS soldier Heinrich Boere. He was "incapable of attending court as a defendant due to various severe health problems," went the justification.
The 87-year-old Boere is accused of shooting dead three innocent people as part of the "Silbertanne" ("Silver Pine") squad in the Netherlands in 1944. According to several court reports, Boere and a companion shot dead the three unarmed civilians between July and September 1944: Fritz Bicknese, a pharmacist, in Breda, a bicycle dealer Teun de Groot in Voorschoten and F.W. Kusters, in Wassenaar. Boere confessed to the killings after he was captured by US forces at the end of World War II but he escaped before he could be put on trial. He has lived for decades in Germany, just on the other side of the Dutch border and everything indicates that he will go on evading justice.
'A Trial Doesn't Make Sense Any More'
The Dortmund state prosecutor's office, which is the regional office responsible for dealing with Nazi war crimes, has lodged a complaint against the decision not to open a trial. The prosecutor is of the opinion that Boere was mentally fit to stand trial. "We have to investigate this carefully now," senior state prosecutor Ulrich Maass told SPIEGEL ONLINE. However, Boere's lawyer, Gordon Christiansen, is unperturbed. "I would be very surprised if something were still to happen there," Christiansen told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The Cologne-based lawyer said his client could no longer walk, had serious heart problems and his condition was continuing to deteriorate. "A trial doesn't make sense any more," he said. However, Christiansen said that investigators from the North Rhine-Westphalia police force are planning to interview employees at the retirement home where Boere lives next week. "They are definitely going there," he said.
The former SS man does not seem concerned about whether or not he will face trial. Speaking to SPIEGEL ONLINE in 2007, Boere said: "I'm alone, I don't have much longer to live and I am just waiting to die." Confronted with his crimes, he said: "I am no longer interested in what happened back then."
"In past years the prosecution of criminals in Germany has suffered from a lack of dedication," claims Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. "The mills of bureaucracy grind slowly -- and the list of the excuses for not bringing someone to trial is long." Zuroff says that the cases against accused Nazi henchmen should be made a top priority, and should be vigorously pursued "regardless of the age of the accused."
Nazi hunter Zuroff knows that people like John Demjanjuk and Charles Zentai are just the "small fry," and he realizes that the trials against them are mainly symbolic. "But just because they are symbolic, doesn't make them less necessary or less important. The fact that this is not about the architects of the Holocaust does not mean that they are any less guilty," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. For the relatives of the victims, he says, it is vital that every single one of them be brought to account.
Is Dr. Death Still Alive?
Former concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim has been one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals for years. Zudorf says that Heim, known as Dr. Death or the Butcher of Mauthausen, was a "very attractive, sexy case," for German investigators, unlike many other cases that were less intensively pursued. However, even the investigation into Heim proved difficult.
The German broadcaster ZDF and the New York Times reported in February that Heim had died in Cairo back in 1992. A briefcase containing Heim's personal documents had been found and the son of the doctor who treated Heim for cancer confirmed his death.
However, SPIEGEL learned earlier this month that German police have their doubts about this version of events. Specialists with the criminal police force in the state of Baden-Württemberg examined the documents found in the old briefcase and found that they did not constitute "evidence of death." New evidence from the police's "own sources" both in Germany and abroad as well as inconsistencies in the claims of death in Egypt had prompted the police to continue their investigation "in all directions."
The police have since told SPIEGEL ONLINE that German officials have still not been able to go to Egypt because there had been "no response from the authorities there" to the request for an exchange of information. Furthermore, there has been no official confirmation "that Aribert Heim actually died and was buried in Egypt." The investigation continues and the discovery of the old briefcase has provided a possible clue in the hunt for Heim by indicating where he may have lived at one point.
Living Openly In Austria
It is no secret, on the other hand, where Milivoj Asner lives. The 96-year-old Asner resides in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt where he and his wife openly sit in cafes and go shopping. Last year, a reporter with the British mass-circulation daily The Sun found him in the town during the European soccer championship watching games on the so-called fan mile with other football supporters. During World War II he was chief of the Nazi-backed Ustasha police force in the Croatian town of Pozega and is accused of deporting hundreds of Jews and Serbs.
Four medical experts came to the conclusion that Asner could no longer be prosecuted. They say he is suffering from advanced dementia and is no longer capable of foreseeing the consequences of what he says. The latest medical report is from just four weeks ago.
"The reason that these people cannot be brought to account now is because the justice system was tardy 30 years ago," Manfred Herrenhofer, spokesman for the Klagenfurt court, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Back then there was little backing in society for the prosecution of the alleged Nazi war criminals. "Today we have a young generation of judges. And they cannot repay one injustice with another. Everyone has the right to a legal trial in which they are assumed to be innocent."
The Austrian justice system came in for tough criticism after The Sun ran the interview with the clearly mentally fit Asner. "Austria and Germany are not Guantanamo," says Herrenhofer. "We understand the concerns of those affected. However, we cannot waver from the principles of the rule of law. Otherwise we would lose all credibility."
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