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Protests greet war crimes verdict despite conviction of Gestapo agent

BERLIN, May 20 (JTA) — Protest — and praise — greeted this week’s verdict in what may be Germany’s last Nazi war crimes case. Alfons Goetzfrid, a 79-year-old former Gestapo agent, was found guilty of helping murder 17,000 people, most of them Jews. But a German court ruled that he should not serve the sentence of 10 years because of time already served in Soviet prisons. The decision is “basically ridiculous,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a telephone interview. It is “like a slap on the wrist,” he added. “What kind of lesson is that for future generations? Sentencing is not about compassion. “I would invite Germany to look at other societies where rape and drunk driving get higher sentences,” said Hier. But Ignatz Bubis, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, welcomed the verdict. “There might be cases where you can’t punish the person, but it is very important that their guilt is stated, “ said Bubis, who is a Holocaust survivor. The comments came after a court in the southwestern city of Stuttgart found Goetzfrid guilty of assisting in the murders at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, in an action the Nazis called the “Harvest Festival.” The court said Goetzfrid, a Russian of German descent, should not serve any more prison time because he spent 13 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps after being convicted on the same charge. In 1991 he immigrated from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to Germany. He was arrested in Germany in March 1998 and was held for a year in jail while awaiting trial. While Goetzfrid will continue to live freely in Stuttgart, he will lose his German pension, according to Stuttgart State Court spokesman Andreas Arndt. For the thousands of victims and their families, said Arndt, it was “important” to strip him of the pension “even if it is clear that no one has to go to prison. “It is the principle” that is important, he added. According to his attorney, Dieter Koenig, Goetzfrid has one week to appeal the verdict to a higher court in Karlsruhe. British investigators reported that Goetzfrid had previously admitted, during interviews as a witness in another case, to shooting 500 people himself in the action at Majdanek. But in his own trial, he denied having fired any weapons himself, saying he had only loaded weapons for others. “I cannot remember shooting anyone myself,” he said at the trial, during which he also admitted to being a member of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. He said that the scene of men, women and children in agony had made him physically ill. In its decision, the court found him guilty of assisting in, but not committing, murder. Prosecutor Kurt Schrimm had asked for a 13-year sentence. Outside Germany, there are several World War II war crimes trials currently under way or recently concluded, including: * The case of Dinko Sakic, 77, currently on trial in the Croatian capital of Zagreb for his role in the massacre of hundreds of victims at Jasenovac concentration camp. * Austria recently decided to try Dr. Heinrich Gross, 83, for his alleged role in the murder of children at a clinic in Vienna. * In London last month, Britain’s first war crimes trial found Anthony Sawoniuk, a 78-year-old retired British railroad ticket collector, guilty of war crimes in Belarus. * This week, the U.S. Justice Department launched new proceedings against John Demjanjuk, 79, a retired auto mechanic in Cleveland. After the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 overturned a ruling that he was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” gas chamber operator in the Treblinka death camp, he returned to the United States and is now accused of having been a guard at the Sobibor camp and a member of the SS Trawniki unit that participated in the Nazi extermination of Jews. Demjanjuk stands to lose his U.S. citizenship if it is found that he lied about his past. “We are coming to the end of an era,” said Hier, “but that does not mean that all the criminals have been found. Some have gotten off scot-free.” Said Bubis: “Most of these people have died. From time to time, you find here or there someone who has not been” tried, he added. “But there will come a day when we cannot find more.”