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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 01:13 GMT


World: Europe

Lithuania suspends trial of war crimes pair

Thousands of Lithuanian Jews ended up at death camps such as Auschwitz

A Lithuanian court has suspended the trial of two alleged war criminals accused of handing Jews over to Nazi death squads during World War II.

Aleksandras Lileikis was head of security police in Vilnius - then a city with a high Polish and Jewish population - during the Nazi occupation.

He and his former deputy, Kazys Gimzauskas, have been charged with genocide.

Both men are now over 90 years old.

On Tuesday the Vilnius regional court ruled they were too sick to stand trial.

Fake illness

The case could lead to strains in relations between Lithuania and the United States, where the accused lived until a few years ago.

The head of the US Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, Eli Rosenbaum, says he has firm evidence Mr Lileikis is faking illness.

The Lithuanian Government spokesman, Kestutis Cilinskas, accused the US authorities on Monday of trying to exert political pressure on the Lithuanian judiciary.

The Vilnius regional court called on the US Justice Department to make available whatever information it has on Mr Lileikis's health.

Mr Gimzauskas and Mr Lileikis both settled in the US after the war and fled to Lithuania in 1993 and 1996 after legal proceeding were launched against them.

Israeli disquiet

The BBC's Central European analyst, Jan Repa, says the ruling is also bound to be badly received by Israel.

Earlier this month Israel called on the European Union and the US to take into account Lithuania's failure to prosecute World War II war criminals when considering its efforts to join the EU and Nato.

Our correspondent says the pair's case highlights the difficulty some East European states have in coming to terms with the period of Nazi occupation.

When the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it was welcomed by many people in the recently annexed Baltic States and in Ukraine as a liberator.

Shameful past

Thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians fought side by side with the Wehrmacht - many fought and died at the battle of Stalingrad - or joined local police units which operated under the aegis of the SS.

Anti-Semitism was common and Jews - often perceived as Soviet collaborators - were frequenty picked on and murdered by members of the local population.

After the war many of the collaborators were sent to the gulags but many had retreated with the German army and disappeared in the post-war chaos.

Several have since surfaced in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Canada.

Uncomfortable truth

Our correspondent says when the Baltic nations were granted independence in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union the subject of war criminals was brushed under the carpet.

Many Lithuanians believed post-war Soviet "anti-nationalist" propaganda had wrongly painted many Lithuanians as traitors and war criminals.

But as they are discovering being anti-Soviet is not enough these days to ensure a sympathetic hearing in Washington.





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