SYDNEY, Dec. 13 (JTA) – Responding to an extradition request from Latvia, Australian officials have detained a war crimes suspect allegedly involved in the deaths of up to 30,000 Jews during World War II.
Officials on Wednesday arrested Konrad Kalejs and later released him, but they took his passport to prevent him from fleeing the country.
Justice Minister Amanda Vanstone said Wednesday “the normal extradition process would be followed” now that Australia has received the extradition request from Latvia, where Kalejs would face “one charge of genocide and one charge of war crimes.”
For years, Kalejs has faced charges of being involved in the wartime slaughter of civilians when he served as an officer in Latvia’s pro-Nazi Arajs Kommando unit.
The militia is held directly responsible for the deaths of some 100,000 civilians, including 30,000 Jews, between 1941 and 1943.
About 75,000 Jews, more than 90 percent of Latvia’s prewar Jewish community, were murdered by the Nazis, with help from local residents.
Kalejs has said he was ordered by German officers to head an Arajs Kommando unit, but he denied being present when civilians were shot.
U.S. and Jewish groups pressured Latvia to extradite Kalejs for trial after he was found by Nazi hunters in a retirement home in Britain late last year.
Kalejs was deported from the United States and Canada in the early 1990s for lying about his wartime record. He fled in January from Britain to Australia, where he has had citizenship since 1957.
For more than 15 years, Australian Jews have sought his prosecution in Australia or deportation to a country where he would face trial.
Kalejs, 87, signaled through his lawyer that he intends to fight the extradition on the grounds of his age and health. He has vowed to remain at his home in Melbourne prior to an extradition hearing.
Prosecutors in Latvia say that between 1942 and 1943 he led a guard unit at a slave labor camp outside Riga that starved, tortured and murdered Jews, Gypsies and others.
If the extradition request is successful, he will be the first suspected Nazi collaborator tried in post-Communist Latvia.
In February, Latvia hosted a two-day conference at which government officials from the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany and Israel discussed the Baltic nation’s failure to convict any suspected Nazis since Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
During the conference, Latvia’s prosecutor general, Janis Skrastins, pledged Latvia’s “readiness and commitment” to “investigate Nazi-sponsored crimes committed on Latvian territory during World War II and to prosecute persons who have committed these crimes.”
Nazi hunters from around the globe welcomed that announcement, but cautioned that they had heard such promises before.
On Wednesday, the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – which has been at the forefront of efforts pressing Latvia to deal with its wartime past – applauded Latvia’s decision to seek Kalejs’ extradition.
“The time has come for this Holocaust perpetrator to pay for his crimes,” said the office’s director, Efraim Zuroff.