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Court Weighs Priebke’s Release from Jail Because of His Health

An Italian military court has delayed ruling on a controversial defense request to release former SS Capt. Erich Priebke from prison and place him under house arrest pending the verdict in his war crimes trial.

At the same time, presiding Judge Agostino Quistelli rejected Thursday a bid by Jewish civil plaintiffs in the case to have the trial shifted to a civil court.

In an attempt to bring the trial to an end before the August summer holidays, he also ordered expanded, weekend court sessions to expedite the proceedings.

The Priebke trial reopened Wednesday after a three-week break during which a military appeals court rejected Prosecutor Antonino Intelisano’s attempt to oust Quistelli and another of the three judges because of their alleged bias in favor of Priebke.

Priebke, who turns 83 at the end of July, is charged with involvement in Italy’s worst Nazi World War II atrocity — the March 1944 mass execution of 335 men and boys in the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome. Some 75 of the massacre victims were Jews.

The massacre was ordered in reprisal for an Italian partisan attack that killed 33 German soldiers.

Priebke has been held in a Rome military prison since he was extradited from Argentina last November to stand trial. The trial itself began May 8.

At Wednesday’s session, Priebke’s lawyer touched off an angry shouting match in the courtroom by requesting that because of his age Priebke be released from jail pending the trial verdict.

Velio Di Rezze said a Rome businessman had offered to house Priebke if he was released. Italy does not have a bail system.

“In Italy,” he said, “there is no one held in preventive detention who is older than 70. There is only Priebke, who turns 83 on July 29.”

Spectators in the courtroom, including friends and family of victims of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, erupted into a storm of protests and cries of “Shame, shame.” Quistelli angrily threatened to clear the courtroom.

At the same trial session, Oreste Bisazza Terracini, the lawyer representing families of the Jewish victims, requested that the trial be shifted to a civil court because the SS was a political rather than military police body.

In his rulings Thursday, Quistelli said the court would decide on whether to grant Priebke house arrest within two weeks, after carrying out tests on Priebke’s health.

He flatly rejected Bisazza Terracini’s request to shift the trial to a civil courtroom.

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