Former SS Capt. Erich Priebke went before a military court this week for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to try him for the World War II massacre of 335 Roman civilians.
The hearing Thursday opened about two weeks after Priebke, 82, was extradited to Italy from Argentina, where he had lived openly since 1948 in the Andean resort of Bariloche.
Judge Guiseppe Mazzi delayed a decision in the hearing for as long as several weeks, pending a ruling by Italy’s Constitutional Court – the highest court in the land – whether families of the victims can take part in an eventual trial as civil plaintiffs.
If sent to trial, Priebke would be tried by a military court. There is no legal precedent in Italy for civil plaintiffs to be represented in military courts.
The prosecution charges that Priebke was one of the architects of the March 24, 1944, massacre in the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.
The victims – including 75 Jews, several Roman Catholic priests and three teen- agers – were executed in direct reprisal for a partisan attack the day before that killed 33 German soldiers.
The mass execution is considered Italy’s worst World War II atrocity, and the Ardeatine Caves are a national shrine.
More than two dozen family members or friends of the victims waited outside the courtroom during the closed-door hearing Thursday. One of them fainted and had to have medical treatment.
After the trial session, there were shouts of “assassin” as Priebke was led away by police.
Priebke was an assistant to Herbert Kappler, the Gestapo chief in Rome during the German occupation. He has admitted to taking part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre, personally killing two people, but he maintains that he was just following orders and had no choice.
Lawyers say this image of a soldier following military discipline will be Priebke’s line of defense.
Priebke, “as a captain who was following orders, could not have changed the outcome of events and he could not have failed to fulfill” the orders of a superior, Pedro Bianchi, Priebke’s Argentine lawyer, told reporters outside the courtroom Thursday.
“We don’t deny what happened at the Ardeatine Caves. We don’t deny Priebke’s participation. We deny he is guilty.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assistant dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in an interview that this was “the same defense that Nazis have given in any trial held in a democracy.”
He said he hoped that the Constitution Court would rule to allow the families to be represented in civil actions within the framework of the trial in order to expand the nature of the trial.
“The fact that someone puts on a uniform does not give him carte blanche for criminal behavior,” Cooper said.
He noted that this was an extremely important point to emphasize, particularly because the trial is being handled by a military tribunal.
An Italian military court in 1948 sentenced Kappler to life in prison for overseeing the massacre. Kappler’s wife smuggled him out of a military prison hospital in a suitcase in 1977 and he died of cancer six months later.
Priebke should also have been tried after the war, but he escaped from a British-run prison camp in northeast Italy in 1946 and in 1948 made his way to Argentina.
He was discovered in Bariloche in May 1994 by an ABC television news team.
Wednesday night, on the eve of the hearing, Rome’s Mayor Francesco Rutelli led a silent commemoration of the massacre’s victims on the steps of Rome’s historic city hall, the Campidoglio.
The crowd held 335 lighted candles to symbolize the dead.
“After 50 years, the city has not forgotten,” Rutelli said. “We don’t want a vendetta, but justice and truth.”