Lithuania’s decision not to prosecute a man the United States wants to deport for his alleged involvement in Nazi war crimes has drawn fire from U.S. government officials and Jewish leaders.
Although officials say the move will not stop deportation proceedings against Aleksandras Lileikis, of Norwood, Mass., it will hinder the government’s ability to expedite the process through extradition.
The Justice Department, which initiated proceedings against Lileikis in September, contends that as head of the Vilnius Gestapo during World War II, Lileikis signed order directing his troops to hold Jews at the Vilnius hard labor camp then turn them over to killing squads for execution.
His actions resulted in the roundup of some 55,000 Jews.
Ironically, documents from Lithuanian archives spurred the Justice Department’s Nazi hunting branch, the Office of Special Investigations, to begin investigating Lileikis.
The case is “one of the most important Nazi cases brought anywhere in the world in recent history,” OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum said at the time.
Rosenbaum, who served as OSI’s acting director for 10 months, was formally named director last week.
Lileikis would have been the first Nazi war criminal prosecuted independent Lithuania.
Jewish officials are disappointed in the decision.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. “Lithuania has betrayed the memories of tens of thousands of innocent people.”
The Lithuanian government told the U.S. Embassy there earlier this month that it had no documents supporting claims that Lileikis, now 87, participated in Nazi war crimes.
Lileikis has admitted involvement with the Nazis, but denies responsibility for any deaths. He is fighting OSI’s deportation attempt.
Lithuania’s contention that it has no proof drew strong reaction from Steinberg.
“They’re not telling the truth,” he said. “If they say they don’t have the documents, they’re not telling the truth.”
A Justice Department official said the new developments will not affect efforts to deport Lileikis.
“We will continue to seek his denaturalization, and make an effort to get him out of the country,” said department spokesman John Russell.
WJC is not giving up, either. Steinberg said the international umbrella organization will work to convince the Lithuanian government to change its mind.
If approaching Lithuania directly does not work, he said, his group will go to other countries, including the United States, and ask them to put diplomatic pressure on Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Lighuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas is scheduled to visit Israel later this month.
According to Steinberg, the visit will be “a diplomatic disaster” if Lithuania does not change its mind about Lileikis.