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Jews Skeptical of Lithuania’s Intent to Halt Exonerations of War Criminals

American Jewish leaders have guardedly welcomed a Lithuanian Supreme Court justice’s announcement that his government has halted the exoneration of war criminals imprisoned by Soviets after World War II and that it will reverse the rehabilitation of any who committed war crimes against Jews.

Jewish officials following the case are concerned that the desire of Supreme Court Justice Genadijus Slauta to rectify the situation is not shared by Lithuania’s president, Vytautas Landsbergis, or by other government figures.

The New York Times on Thursday quoted Slauta as saying that his government had decided to reverse the miscarriages of justice after reviewing the trial records of five of the people who had been cleared.

Each exoneration was wrong, he told the Times.

“We were trying to rehabilitate everybody as quickly as possible,” he reportedly said. “Now we are sorry we acted so rapidly. We see serious errors were made.”

But Landsbergis, told Wednesday that trial records proved some of those who had been cleared of wrongdoing had indeed engaged in war crimes, denied that any had been pardoned in error.

The trial records of 11 people were provided to the Lithuanian officials by the Los Angelesbased Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The center obtained them from two legal professionals in Vilnius who found them in government archives there, according to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s dean.

Evidence in the first four of the cases was sent to Lithuanian authorities on Aug. 27, 1991. None of those exonerations was reversed, according to Hier.

Evidence showing the guilt of the other seven was sent to Landsbergis last week, Hier said. He does not know which five of them Slauta decided to reverse.

SUGGESTS EVIDENCE PLANTED BY KGB

Landsbergis on Wednesday also suggested that the evidence had been planted with the Holocaust research organization by the KGB, in an effort to discredit Lithuania, according to the Times story.

Those exonerated who had spent time in prison receive back pay for the time that they were wrongly imprisoned. If they have subsequently died, as have many of the 35,000 exonerated so far, then their next of kin receive the money, Hier said.

There is some question about the source of those funds. The Lithuanian government is bankrupt, and Landsbergis has been lobbying other governments for foreign aid.

Present Lithuanian law provides no procedure for the reversal of exonerations, according to the Times story.

But Aristidas Pestininkas, vice president of the Supreme Court, said the parliament would be asked to amend the law.

“What you have is a very positive development that the judicial branch has stepped in, but we have to note with skepticism that the political leaders are still using the bizarre charges that this is a plot,” said Hier.

“The battle is far from over,” he added. “I’m afraid that unless we get the backing of the political leaders, it may not be enough. It’s easy to get a pronouncement of willingness to cooperate from the government, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, they’re not helpful.”

“We are advanced from where we were” with the effort, said Abraham Bayer, director of international concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella group representing 113 local Jewish community relations organizations and 17 national agencies.

Hier of the Wiesenthal Center called upon the Lithuanian government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to examine and review all cases of alleged crimes involving collaboration with the Nazis, and to make public the list of the 35,000 individuals who he said have been exonerated.

“We want to know who they are,” Hier said. That way, “potential witnesses who may be aware of crimes committed during the Holocaust will have no fear in coming forward with their evidence.”

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