BONN (Apr. 23)
The West German Cabinet decided today to ask Parliament to abolish the statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes prosecutions scheduled to go into effect at the end of this year. Legislation to that effect, backed by the Federal Government, is virtually assured of passage in the Bundestag (lower house) before the Sept. 28 national elections.
The Cabinet also decided not to ask the Constitutional High Court in Karlsruhe to outlaw the right-wing National Democratic Party but to leave the future of the extremist party to the German voter in the national elections. Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger had opposed outlawing it, but Interior Minister Ernst Benda and the Social Democrats favored a ban.
Justice Minister Horst Emhke will prepare a final draft of a measure for the abolition action and it will be presented Thursday to the Cabinet, which will then formally decide on accepting it or rejecting it. This is expected to be a pro forma move. The Cabinet decision on the statute, announced after a four hour discussion, means that Nazis guilty of mass murder or other crimes involving murder could no longer count on escaping justice by hiding out until the statute became effective. However, the Cabinet bill contains a provision for dropping charges against minor accomplices to murder in certain cases. State Secretary Guenter Diehl, spokesman for Chancellor Kiesinger, explained that men guilty of murders only because they were assigned to an execution squad, became guilty of a crime but not of his will and volition.” But, he added, the prosecution of those who had command prerogatives must be continued.
The Cabinet’s decision marked the first time that West Germany has clearly come to grips with the question of time limits on war crimes prosecutions. A statute of limitations was to have gone into effect on May 8, 1965, the 20th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. But the Bundestag postponed it for five years–to Dec. 31, 1969. That decision was challenged by several judges and by attorneys for accused Nazis. The Constitutional High Court ruled yesterday that the Bundestag had acted within the law. The ruling was believed to have gone far to pave the way for today’s Cabinet decision.
Another powerful factor was last November’s United Nation’s declaration urging no statutes of limitations for genocide and other crimes against humanity. The Cabinet was apparently further persuaded to abolish the statute by the continuing stream of new evidence leading to the arrests of suspected war criminals. President-elect Gustav Heinemann, a strong proponent of abolition, has argued that scores of war criminals would otherwise go free because there would not be sufficient time to prepare cases against them if a statute of limitations was to go into effect.
Mr. Diehl told JTA’s West Germany correspondent Alfred Wolfmann that only 10 percent of Nazi criminals brought to trial until now had been convicted and said “sometimes there should be mercy before law.”
Observers here believe that the Cabinet’s decision will be hailed abroad as much as, if not more than, within Germany. It will, they say, temper some of the criticism likely to be heard now that the Cabinet has decided not to seek a Constitutional ban on the National Democratic Party. The problem of the reputedly neo-Nazi NPD has concerned liberal Germans almost as much as the question of the statute of limitations. There has been considerable pressure on the Government to ask the Karlsruhe Court to ban the party as anti-democratic. Interior Minister Benda says he has ample evidence to warrant banning the party as anti-democratic. But the Government and a majority of the Bundestag have been reluctant to act even though the NPD seems likely to win the minimum five percent of the vote necessary to qualify for seats in the Bundestag. Government leaders have felt that a ban might backfire, especially as the court could not rule on the party’s legality before the elections. They have said it would be better to let the electorate repudiate the NPD at the polls.