Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 14:18 UK

Passage of time helps last Nazis

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Josef Scheungraber
Josef Scheungraber was convicted after a lengthy trial in Germany

The trial of a former German infantry commander for Nazi war crimes took 11 months, and ended in what is nowadays a rare conviction.

Josef Scheungraber has been jailed for life after being convicted of the murder of 10 civilians in an Italian village during World War II.

A Munich state court sentenced the 90-year-old German after a type of trial that is now quite rare.

The passage of time since the war and the patchy record of governments in pursuing Nazis and their collaborators mean that, while many Nazis have faced justice and been convicted, far more have slipped through the net.

In the 1950s and 1960s, German judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer estimated there were 100,000 Germans responsible in one way or another for mass killings of Jews during the war. Other estimates suggested a figure as high as 300,000.

The judge also said fewer than 5,000 people had been prosecuted and, while there have been many convictions, there has not been a significantly large addition to that number in the years since.

Late efforts

Serge Klarsfeld pursued several Nazis and collaborators after WWII, including Klaus Barbie, Maurice Papon and Paul Touvier. He runs an organisation called Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France.

While welcoming Tuesday's guilty verdict, he expressed doubt that Scheungraber would ever actually be jailed.

This reinforces the message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes of the perpetrator
Dr Efraim Zuroff, Simon Wiesenthal Center

"It's good to have such decisions because it helps the families in Italy and it's a solution to their pain," he said.

"But he will not go to jail, he is too old.

"Today's tendencies are that we can pursue these people because they are old and they will not go to jail, even if convicted.

"If, decades ago, Nazis had been pursued, they would have been younger and would have had to be sent to jail. Prosecutors do not want to send old men to jail."

Nazi trials

Mr Klarsfeld's argument is borne out to some extent by cases such as that of French Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon.

He was famously convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in the collaborationist Vichy government, and sentenced to 10 years in a French prison in 1998.

But he served only three, on grounds of ill health, and was released in 2002.

Lithuanian Algimantas Dailide was convicted in 2006, aged 85, of persecuting and arresting two Poles and 12 Jews while a member of the Nazi-backed police in WWII.

But the judge at his trial in Vilnius did not give him a jail term, saying he was too old and "no longer a threat to society".

Dr Efraim Zuroff
Dr Zuroff says Nazis should be pursued regardless of their age

Erich Priebke, aged in his eighties, was jailed for life in Italy in 1998 for his role in the massacre of 335 Italians in 1944.

But in 1999 he was given leave to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest in his lawyer's home, on grounds of ill health.

He was also later briefly allowed to work at his lawyer's offices in Rome, before his work permit was cancelled following furious protests.

Mr Klarsfeld does welcome current attempts by Germany to bring Nazis to justice - the cases of John Demjanjuk and Heinrich Boere are due to be heard in Germany within months, for example.

But he says these efforts should have been exerted much sooner.

"Germany's efforts today are something that is positive, but at the same time the same prosecutors should have pursued Nazis 20 or 30 years ago, because now they are only able to go after people who were often nothing more than guards and had little responsibility.

"But their superiors, who had more responsibility, were not pursued and now they are dead."

'No excuse'

Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is based in Jerusalem, said he was "very pleased" with Scheungraber's conviction.

"This reinforces the message that the passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes of the perpetrator.

"It's important to bring these people to justice because they are guilty and deserve to be punished," he said.

"Old age is no excuse for murder."

Dr Zuroff also acknowledged that there had been a "recent distinct improvement in the efforts made by the German judiciary, which is better late than never".

"There's a realisation that we're in the final phase of bringing Nazis to justice. These trials will not be possible in five or seven years' time. It's important that this is done while it can be done."

However, Dr Zuroff believes there is still enough time for several more alleged Nazis to be put on trial before their age takes them beyond the reach of the courts.

"We will see several additional trials, with more non-Germans such as John Demjanjuk placed on trial.

"We encourage the German judiciary to do as much as they can to bring these people to justice."

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