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Lithuania premier wants review of war criminal pardon practice

MOSCOW, Sept. 7 (JTA) – Lithuania’s prime minister is seeking to accelerate the annulment of pardons granted to suspected war criminals. Coming just days before the commemoration of the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon – an event boycotted by some Jewish groups – the prime minister’s call last week for action was viewed by some as a ploy aimed at boosting Lithuania’s image. “This should have been done long ago,” Simonas Alperavicius, the chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish community, said in a telephone interview from Vilnius, the Lithuanian government. Alperavicius said Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius’ call for action was clearly timed for this week’s commemoration of the Gaon, the renowned commentator on the Talmud and the Torah. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has called for an international boycott of the commemoration, saying that participation would be seen as support for a government that has not yet atoned for the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry. Nearly 94 percent of the country’s Jewish community perished in the Holocaust. After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania issued certificates of exoneration to more than 50,000 Lithuanians who were convicted as war criminals by Soviet courts. Among those pardoned were people who allegedly helped the Nazis kill Jews. Holocaust survivors, American Jewish leaders and the Lithuanian Jewish community have protested this practice of rehabilitation and called upon the Lithuanian government to reverse the pardons. As a result, about 1,000 individuals were denied rehabilitation. Several certificates of exoneration were also revoked, but authorities claimed investigation of other war-crime suspects was hindered by the absence of authentic documentation and witnesses. “Neither at home nor abroad should there be any doubt concerning the resolution of the Lithuanian people to create a just state,” said Vagnorius. There are 17 incomplete cases involving the annulment of rehabilitation before the country’s supreme court. A number of these cases have been transferred to the prosecutor-general’s office for additional investigation. “An open, immediate and objective investigation of these cases would demonstrate that Lithuania is adequately carrying out its international commitments and seeking justice,” Vagnorius said. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, said he was not surprised that the premier’s statement came “on the eve of the celebration.” The Lithuanian officials “know that those few who agreed to come will be speaking about the issues of war criminals and rehabilitation,” Zuroff said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. Last week, authorities in Vilnius were disappointed to find out that a high-ranking Israeli official who was slated to attend the six-day commemoration of the Gaon would not be coming. Zevulun Hammer, Israel’s education and religious affairs minister, said his decision was not connected with the Wiesenthal Center’s call for a boycott. Other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith, are not joining in the boycott and have helped to plan the commemoration.

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