In an about face, the Lithuanian government has decided to reopen the case of an alleged Nazi war criminal.
Two weeks ago, Lithuania said it did not have enough evidence to prosecute Aleksandras Lileikis, 87, of Norwood, Mass. The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to deport Lileikis. The department contends that as head of the Vilnius Gestapo, Lileikis signed orders directing his force to hold arrested Jews at the Vilnius Hard Labour camp and then turn them over to killing squads for execution.
The announcement not to prosecute, which triggered strong protests from Jewish leaders and others, meant that the deportation proceedings might be slowed down.
“Perhaps it was a bit hasty on the part of the prosecutors” to decide not to prosecute, said Lithuanian Consul General Petras Anusas, speculating on why country changed its mind.
The New York-based diplomat also said a number of Lithuanian officials reportedly regretted the decision. The original prosecutors were removed from the case, and four others have been assigned, Anusas said in a telephone interview.
Lithuania’s reversal came on the eve of a scheduled visit to Israel by Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas. Some Jewish officials had speculated that the issue would cast a shadow over the historic visit.
Last year, the Justice Department’s Nazi arm, the Office of Special Investigations, began proceedings to strip Lileikis of his citizenship.
Those efforts could be accelerated if Lithuania decides to prosecute Lileikis, said John Russell, a department spokesman.
At least 55,000 Vilnius Jews and 220,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed during the war.
Lileikis has admitted involvement with the Nazis but he denies responsibility for any deaths.
If Lithuania decides to prosecute, Lileikis would be the first Nazi war criminal tried there since the country’s 1991 independence.