ROME (Jun. 2)
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has assured representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that his government is against racism and that he is personally committed to seeing former Nazi Erich Priebke put on trial in Rome for war crimes.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Wiesenthal Center associate dean, and the center’s European and Latin American director, Shimon Samuels, met for nearly an hour with Berlusconi and for longer with Italian Justice Minister Alfredo Biondi on Tuesday evening.
They were the first representatives of a major Jewish organization to meet with Berlusconi since the formation of the new Italian government, which includes five Cabinet ministers from the neo-fascist National Alliance.
A delegation of American Jews met last month in Washington with Italy’s new foreign minister, Antonio Martino, seeking similar assurances about the new government’s approach to anti-Semitism.
At a news conference following the meeting with Berlusconi and Biondi, the Wiesenthal Center leaders said they had given the Italians a dossier on Priebke’s involvement in war crimes.
Priebke, now 81, was tracked down in Argentina last month and was placed under house arrest in the Andean town of San Carlos di Bariloche.
EXTRADITION PROCEEDINGS HAVE BEGUN
The Italian Justice Ministry has begun extradition proceedings for him on charges of his involvement in the 1944 massacre of 335 Italians, including 75 Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.
One of the documents presented by the Wiesenthal Center was a copy of a confession Priebke made in 1946 in which he admitted personally killing two of the victims at the Ardeatine Caves, the site of Italy’s worst Holocaust massacre.
“We rushed to Rome because of the judicial limit of 45 days within which Italy must submit all documentation relating to the arrest warrant,” Cooper said.
“What we heard from the prime minister was that he is personally committed to and wants to see Priebke go on trial soon and in Rome,” he said.
He said the Italians said their foreign minister had asked Argentina last week to take measures to prevent Priebke from fleeing the country.
A government statement confirmed that Berlusconi wanted Priebke tried in Rome and said the justice minister told the Wiesenthal representatives that Italy would complete a full documentation on Priebke within a few days.
It said Berlusconi had assured Cooper and Samuels that “such an action stems from the deep-rooted repugnance that exists in Italy toward crimes against humanity, racial intolerance and anti-Semitism.”
Cooper said Berlusconi “took great pains to assure us that none of the people in his Cabinet had ties that go back historically to the time of Mussolini.”