Worldwide Hunt for Last Nazis Moves in Fits and Starts

By: David Rising
By: David Rising


BADEN-BADEN, Germany (AP) -- For Heinz Heister, presiding judge of the court where wanted concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim has been indicted, it's a familiar refrain: What's the point?

"There's often people who say: 'He's in his 90's, why do you bother?'" Heister told The Associated Press in a recent interview at his Baden-Baden state court office. "But his age has got nothing to do with it. It is our duty to pursue this to the best of our abilities."

The question cited by the judge is part of what Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff calls "misplaced sympathy syndrome" - a reluctance to go after war crimes suspects just because they're old.

Jerusalem-based Zuroff is with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which reports that although total investigations worldwide are down from 1,019 last year, 202 new probes have been opened in the past year, versus 63 last year.

"There are a lot of good things happening, the new investigations have tripled in the last year, but the number of convictions is down and we face serious political problems in many different countries," Zuroff said. "The absence of political will to prosecute or devote the energy and resources to do so are the major obstacles of the final prosecution of Nazi war criminals."

In London, researcher Stephen Ankier has pushed for more than 20 years for a greater effort to go after Nazi war criminals in Britain, where only one person has been convicted out of 300 cases that were being investigated when a War Crimes Act was passed in 1991. A special war crimes investigative unit was set up but disbanded eight years later.

"People are saying, 'We haven't got the dedicated manpower, we've got the problem with terrorists, we don't have the budget,'" he said in a telephone interview. Meanwhile, he estimates 50 to 100 suspects are living in Britain.

"It's totally unsatisfactory," he said. "I think we have to pursue every last one of them until not one of them is left alive."

U.S. laws don't permit the prosecution of war crimes in Europe that don't involve Americans. Instead, investigators have concentrated on deporting suspects on immigration violations, with 65 sent home since the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations was opened in 1979.

In Germany, war criminals can only be pursued for murder because the statute of limitations has run out on all other crimes. It and Britain are among scores of countries whose efforts receive low rankings in the Wiesenthal Center's annual report released Wednesday.

But Germany has shown recent signs of progress. Two weeks ago prosecutors charged 86-year-old Heinrich Boere - No. 6 on Wiesenthal's most-wanted list - with three wartime killings in the Netherlands. About 20 cases are under active investigation in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Another 14 investigations remain open in Baden-Wuerttemberg besides the Heim case, said Norbert Kiessling, head of the state police's Nazi Violent Crimes unit.

One major stumbling block is getting witnesses to testify against wartime comrades.

"Our honor is loyalty," Kiessling said in an interview in his Stuttgart office, citing the SS motto embossed on the unit's uniform's belt buckles. "Often it remains so."

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