LOS ANGELES (Jun. 14)
Jewish groups are voicing concern that internal probes into the U.S. Justice Department’s handling of two high-profile war crimes cases could undermine the Nazi-hunting efforts of the department’s Office of Special Investigations.
“What we have is the beginning of a campaign to cripple the investigation of Nazi war criminals,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center here.
“I think it is time for Jewish groups and Jewish organizations to rally behind what is developing into a general assault on Nazi prosecution efforts in this country and other countries,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York.
Cooper and Steinberg sounded the warnings after the Justice Department announced last Friday that its Office of Professional Responsibility would investigate OSI’s handling of the case against John Demjanjuk, who was extradited to Israel in 1986 and later sentenced to death there for war crimes.
Department investigators have also been reexamining OSI’s proceedings against Andrija Artukovic, a Cabinet official in the wartime Nazi puppet state of Croatia who was also extradited in 1986 and later died in a Yugoslav prison.
While neither review has found any misconduct yet on the part of OSI prosecutors, Jewish officials expressed concern the internal probes could throttle future war crimes investigations.
“I am certain that the judicial process will completely back the Office of Special Investigations, which has been rigorous in its investigatory and its prosecutorial efforts,” said Steinberg.
“But I am concerned that the falsifiers of the Holocaust will succeed in the public relations arena where they failed in the courts.”
COURT REOPENS PROCEEDINGS
Questions about OSI’s handling of the Demjanjuk case surfaced after new evidence from the former archives of the Soviet Union came to light casting doubt on whether the retired Cleveland autoworker was indeed the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” who operated the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp.
The evidence appears to suggest that Demjanjuk was at another death camp, Sobibor, and that a similar-looking Ukrainian, named Ivan Marchenko, was the real “Ivan.”
On the basis of that evidence, Israel’s High Court of Justice is now considering an appeal of Demjanjuk’s conviction.
And in the United States, a federal appeals court has reopened proceedings to see whether Demjanjuk was extradited on the basis of “erroneous information.”
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has ordered the Justice Department to turn over by July 15 any evidence indicating that Demjanjuk is not “Ivan the Terrible” and to detail when U.S. agents first learned of each such item of evidence.
The Justice Department’s criminal division began its own investigation of OSI’s handling of the case six months ago. And last Friday, it turned the case over to the department’s watch-dog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility.
The department said that the six-month preliminary review had turned up no evidence that disproved Demjanjuk was a guard at Treblinka.
However, Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller, head of the criminal division, acknowledged that the department had in its possession in 1978 copies of two Soviet interrogation reports concerning another man believed to be “Ivan the Terrible.”
Mueller said that neither report mentions Demjanjuk by name, but contains testimony that two men operated the gas chambers at the death camp, one of them surnamed Marchenko.
CHARGES ON ARTUKOVIC SKIMPIER
The case involving Artukovic is different, in that he admitted to serving as interior minister and minister of justice in Nazi-controlled Croatia, David Nimmer, the lead U.S. federal prosecutor in the extradition hearing, said in a phone interview.
Artukovic, a California resident, was denaturalized and extradited to Yugoslavia in early 1986, after a 35-year legal fight.
Described in the Yugoslav press as “the Butcher of the Balkans,” he was convicted by a Zagreb court on four counts of murder and of running two dozen concentration camps where 700,000 to 900,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were tortured and put to death.
After winning a stay of execution, Artukovic died of natural causes in a prison hospital in 1988.
According to newspaper reports, the renewed Artukovic investigation focuses on allegations that an OSI historian overlooked information in a Croatian state archive pointing to conflicts in key evidence about Artukovic’s actions as a Cabinet minister.
Knowledgeable sources have cast doubt on the allegations, which come mainly from a Florida historian employed by Artukovic’s son, Radoslav, a Los Angeles stockbroker who has continued to defend his father’s name.
“Rad Artukovic has claimed to have uncovered new evidence from the first day of the (extradition) trial, and so far there is nothing to substantiate it,” said Nimmer, who is now in private practice. “So you can draw your own conclusions.”
But whether or not OSI is ultimately vindicated, Jewish officials are concerned that the investigations could harm the unit’s credibility and effectiveness.
Nothing that the Justice Department has just received voluminous new information from the archives of the former Soviet Union, Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said the effort to prosecute Nazi war criminals living in the United States is far from over.
Cooper noted that President Bush had recently told the Wiesenthal Center of his commitment to the continued vigorous prosecution of war criminals.
“We will watch closely whether the Bush administration will stick by this commitment, or whether we see some slippage,” he said.