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Lithuania criticized for delaying trial of accused Nazi war criminal

MOSCOW, Sept. 13 (JTA) – A decision by a Lithuanian court is again calling into doubt the Baltic nation’s willingness to prosecute suspected Nazi war criminals. The Vilnius Regional Court ruled last Friday to adjourn indefinitely the trial of Aleksandras Lileikis, who is accused of handing at least 75 Jews over to Nazi death squads during World War II while he was the Vilnius head of Saugumas, the Nazi-sponsored Lithuanian security police. In ruling for the adjournment, Judge Viktoras Kazys cited the poor health of the 92-year-old defendant. According to doctors appointed to the case, Lileikis has been in critical condition since last November, when he suffered a heart attack after his first and only courtroom appearance. Three panels of doctors have warned that a court appearance would jeopardize the defendant’s life. Court hearings have been postponed several times since the trial’s opening in March 1998. Last year, the court rejected an appeal by the defense to drop the charges against Lileikis, who denies his alleged role in the Holocaust. Evidence gathered by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and by the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s Office shows that from 1941 to 1944 Lileikis had given written orders to kill dozens of Jews jailed in a Vilnius labor prison. On Sept. 9, the judge rejected an appeal by the Office of Special Investigations for another medical examination of Lileikis. The office’s head, Eli Rosenbaum, said a panel of independent international experts should be appointed, including representatives from the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom. Rosenbaum has questioned the validity of conclusions made by previous panels, all four of which consisted of Lithuanian doctors. Antanas Garmus, the chief of Lithuania’s State Forensic Service, who headed all four medical panels, rejected the proposal, saying he would not participate “in such a game.” The proposal insults “not only the experts, but also the whole country,” Garmus has been quoted as saying. Lithuania has been criticized for its poor record of prosecuting suspected Nazis. Efraim Zuroff, who heads the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal center, called Lithuania a safe haven for war criminals. Zuroff called on Lithuanian institutions to reconsider their decision on Lileikis and “to prove once and for all that they had nothing to hide.” During the Nazi occupation of Lithuania from 1941-1944, approximately 94 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish community of 240,000 died in the Holocaust. Historians say the scale of the tragedy could have been smaller had ordinary Lithuanians not helped with the killings. Since Lithuania regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has not prosecuted any of the alleged Nazi collaborators living there.