For a country whose politicians and mass media are solidly united in an international campaign against the death penalty, the execution of Nazi war criminals would be unthinkable.
So Erich Priebke, a former German SS captain, was formally sentenced to 15 years (reduced under an amnesty to five), and Karl Hass, an ex-SS major, to 10 years and eight months in prison for their roles in the murder at Rome's Fosse Ardeatine of 335 people, of whom 75 were Jews.
Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, called the military court's decision "a black page in the history of the Italian justice system." He criticized the court for not condemning Nazism as the ideology that motivated the massacre. But Tullia Zevi, the president of the Italian Jewish Community, praised the fact that Mr. Priebke and Mr. Hass were found guilty and saw the sentences as "a warning not to forget [Nazi atrocities]." She was particularly pleased that the court ruled there was no statute of limitations on war crimes.
This latter principle was fundamental to the case, which was tried on appeal, after a military court last year found Priebke guilty but absolved him, saying the statute of limitations regarding the massacre had expired.
That decision provoked a storm of international outrage. But as Ms. Zevi points out, Italy never ratified the international convention against a statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Priebke, who has been in Italian custody for nearly two years after extradition from Argentina, will only have to serve another six to nine months in prison. Hass received a suspended sentence. Since they are elderly men, the fact that they were formally found guilty was considered more significant than the actual length of their sentences.