As Ex-Nazi SS Officers Face Trial, Italy Reconsiders Justice System

New ruling puts alleged war criminal back in courtroom

When Erich Priebke, a former German SS captain, was acquitted this summer on war crimes charges, the cartoonist for La Repubblica, the Rome-based daily, depicted former German dictator Adolf Hitler among the flames of hell, saying he wanted to appeal to Italian justice.

Around the world many saw the verdict as a travesty. But the prosecutors will have their day in court against Mr. Priebke once again. The Court of Cassation, the Italian high court, paved the way for a new trial earlier this month by annulling the earlier acquittal handed down by a military tribunal.

Priebke's new trial may have ominous implications for former SS Maj. Karl Hass as well.

Both Mr. Hass and Priebke are alleged to have been part of the Fosse Ardeatine firing squad that massacred 335 people, of whom 75 were Jews, in Rome on March 24, 1944. The executions were in reprisal for a bombing by Italian partisans that killed 33 German soldiers.

Last week, an Italian military prosecutor, Antonio Intelisano, initiated indictment proceedings against Hass. If the indictment is accepted, Mr. Intelisano told Reuters that he would plan to try Hass and Priebke together.

Justice served, 42 years later

"[Priebke's] case demonstrates that eventually justice prevails, and if a case is wrong in the first approach, it can be put back on the right track," says Claudio Fano, president of the Jewish community in Rome and the son of a massacre victim. "I want to emphasize, however, that the Priebke case is not a case of the Jewish community, but of the city of Rome."

Unlike the massacre, the acquittal, which caused a storm of consternation worldwide, at least occurred in a democratic context, Mr. Fano, a lawyer, adds.

"The Fosse Ardeatine was an assassination without trial, without respecting any human rights, while Priebke's guilt or innocence had a trial with all the guarantees that a democracy can afford," he says.

The acquittal was based on a legal technicality. In Italy, capital crimes are exempt from the statute of limitations. But since the military tribunal ruled that Priebke did not order the killings - and therefore did not commit a capital crime - the statute of limitations dictated that he couldn't be convicted.

To avoid such a technicality in the future, Italy needs to ratify United Nations and European Union (EU) treaties on the statute of limitations for crimes against humanity, says Antonio Marchese, professor of international human rights law at the University of Teramo.

By doing so, he and other experts say, Priebke and others alleged to have committed wartime atrocities could not be absolved by the Italian judicial system.

Many questions remain up in the air, however: when Priebke will go on trial again, where, and before what kind of court.

Germany has requested extradition of Priebke and Hass, so that they may be tried in their homeland. No final decision has yet been made on this point.

If they are to be tried in Italy, Parliament could decide to ratify the relevant international treaties before the trial, thus avoiding another embarrassing outcome.

Italian justice system questioned

The reopening of the Priebke case comes as politicians are debating how well Italians themselves are served by their justice system.

There are longstanding problems. The EU has repeatedly found Italy responsible for violating the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to personal liberty before trial and the right to a prompt trial, says Mr. Marchese.

Many trials can drag on for years. For example, the trial against former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who is accused of being the Mafia's political contact in Rome, seems just to be getting under way and already a year has past since it began.

Mr. Andreotti is, at least, not under arrest as his trial drags on. But many prominent Italians have found themselves suddenly behind bars in recent years.

Such is the case with Lorenzo Necci, the former head of the Italian railways, who was arrested Sept. 15 and is accused of illicit business dealings.

Theoretically the reason for keeping such people in prison is that they may tamper with the evidence against them. In practice, critics say, they are detained under the hope they will confess in order to obtain their liberty.

Both Priebke and Hass remain under police guard.

Prosecutor Intelisano said that he expected the indictment hearing for Hass to take place in late November. A trial would then begin in mid-December.

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