A man accused of handing over at least 75 Jews to Nazi death squads in Lithuania during World War II has died before the trial against him could be completed.
The war crimes trial of Aleksandras Lileikis in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was postponed several times, with the judge citing the defendant’s poor health. The postponements prompted Jewish officials to question the Baltic nation’s willingness to prosecute suspected Nazi war criminals.
For many Jewish leaders, Lileikis’s death of a heart attack Tuesday at the age of 93 means that justice delayed has become justice denied.
The leader of Lithuania’s Jewish community, Simonas Alperavicius, voiced a hope for an ultimate form of justice.
Lileikis “didn’t repent before he died,” Alperavicius told The Associated Press. “Let God be his judge.”
The director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Efraim Zuroff, blasted Lithuanian authorities for what he called a lack of political will to see the war crimes trial through to its conclusion.
Had the case been handled properly, he said, Lileikis “would have died in jail, which is precisely where murderers should die.
“Lithuania, however, preferred to delay the case until it was too late to conduct a proper trial.”
Lithuania has repeatedly been criticized for its poor record of prosecuting suspected Nazis. Zuroff has often branded Lithuania a safe haven for war criminals.
The allegations against Lileikis stem from his activities during World War II, when he was the Vilnius head of the Saugumas, the Nazi-sponsored Lithuanian security police.
Lileikis, who immigrated to the United States in 1955, was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in May 1996. He returned to Lithuania a month later, proclaiming that he was innocent.
Since that time, he has claimed the case against him was fabricated using documents forged by the Soviet KGB after World War II in an attempt to discredit Lithuanian emigres.
His trial, which began in 1998, was the first to deal with Holocaust crimes in any of the three Baltic states since they gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Shortly before the proceedings against him began, Lileikis charged in a television interview that he was being brought to trial because the Baltic nation had caved into pressure from Jewish groups.
During the interview – which was later lambasted by the local Jewish community as biased – he said he was being “sacrificed” for Lithuania’s political interests.
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.
During the Nazi occupation of Lithuania from 1941-1944, approximately 94 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish community of 250,000 were killed 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.
Sentiment among Lithuanians about the Lileikis trial was mixed.
Many felt a verdict would have helped the nation come to terms with its past. But others were angered at seeing a frail, elderly man subjected to a trial.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.