Jewish leaders here and abroad have joined an international chorus of criticism after a Rome military court freed former SS Capt. Erich Priebke while at the same time declaring him guilty of taking part in Italy’s worst World War II atrocity.
The Aug. 1 ruling, which embarrassed the Italian nation, sent local officials scrambling to find legal solutions to ensure that the 83-year-old Priebke was punished for crimes he admitted committing.
Italy’s justice minister ordered Priebke rearrested just eight hours after he was freed. The order came after Germany submitted a request for Priebke’s extradition.
And prosecutors vowed to appeal the verdict — or to find another way to get the case retried.
“A great opportunity was lost which could have been a definitive condemnation of a regime that turned Europe upside down 50 years ago,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
“We expected the court to express with its verdict a strong message that could have transmitted to young people the general evils and dangers that stem from authoritarianism, violence, extreme nationalism and racism.”
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had been instrumental in tracking Priebke down in Argentina in 1994, issued a blistering condemnation of the court’s decision.
“Aug. 1, 1996, will go down as a day of infamy in Italian history. This is another black mark in the Italian justice system and a slap in the face of his victims and their grieving families,” the statement said.
Other American Jewish organizations issued similarly harsh statements.
The verdict also brought protests from Jewish groups in Germany and Argentina. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said it reopened “a wound never forgotten by Italians.”
The verdict, which was read Aug. 1 by presiding Judge Agostino Quistelli, hit Italy like a bombshell.
After a dramatic three-month trial, the court found Priebke guilty of participating in the March 24, 1944, massacre of 335 men and boys, some 75 of them Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome.
The massacre was personally ordered by Hitler in reprisal for a partisan bomb that killed 33 German soldiers.
But, admitting extenuating circumstances, the court cleared Priebke of the specific war-crimes charges of premeditation and cruelty, thus reducing the gravity of the crime.
This enabled it to fall under a 30-year statute of limitations, which had already expired.
Priebke, who had admitted to killing two of the Ardeatine Caves victims, was declared a free man.
Protest and anger erupted immediately.
Friends and relatives of the victims, who heard the verdict read out while crowded into a corridor outside the courtroom, exploded into tears, curses and shouts of “Assassins!” and “Shame! Shame!”
Scores of protesters, many of them militant young Jews wearing kipot, chanted prayers, clashed with police and tried to storm the courthouse.
At least five policemen were injured and four cars on the street were damaged during clashes that lasted hours.
Priebke was prevented from leaving the courthouse for eight hours until Justice Minister Giovanni Maria Flick ordered him rearrested and had him escorted under guard to a police van that took him to the civilian Regina Coeli prison in downtown Rome.
It was the same prison from which some of the Ardeatine Caves victims were rounded up.
“This verdict makes me ashamed to be Italian,” said Giovanni Gigliozzi, leader of an association of victims’ relatives.
Said a woman who was the daughter of one of the victims: “They have killed them a second time.”
“I no longer have faith,” she added. “There is no justice.”
Italy’s political leaders — from the far left to the far right — were virtually unanimous in expressing dismay and embarrassment about the verdict.
The government issued a statement expressing “extreme bitterness.”
Parliament stood for a minute of silence; President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro met with families of the victims and declared that crimes remained crimes no matter how many years had passed.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi and other Italian leaders made a pilgrimage to the Ardeatine Caves, now a national shrine, in a show of solidarity with the victims.
Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli ordered spotlights to illuminate the Ardeatine Caves the night after the verdict was handed down. He also ordered the lights to be darkened on the Coliseum and other historic Roman monuments.
Far right leader Gianfranco Fini, whose National Alliance party has its roots in fascism, declared the verdict “morally unjust.”
Jewish communities in Rome, Milan and Turin staged protest gatherings and prayers.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and judicial authorities began tackling the legal means to have Priebke retried.
But they warned that technical legal complications could make efforts difficult.
Prosecutors announced that they would appeal the case.
An appeal cannot be lodged until the original verdict is officially published – – in about three months.
Prosecutors and lawyers for Rome’s Jewish community also said they would ask Italy’s highest court to reconsider earlier requests to dismiss the military judges who brought the controversial verdict.
Two such requests were presented during the course of the trial, claiming that the judges were biased in favor of Priebke.
Both of these requests were rejected by a military appeals court. Should the high court reverse these decisions, a new trial would have to take place.
Meanwhile, experts in Italy, Germany and Argentina were examining the possibility of re-extraditing Priebke.
Germany is seeking his extradition, but the terms of Priebke’s extradition from Argentina to Italy last year specifically bar him from being extradited to another country.
Argentina, however, where Priebke lived openly for nearly 50 years until he was discovered there by a American television news crew in 1994, said it would refuse to let Priebke back into the country.
A spokesman for the German Justice Ministry said Germany would ask Argentina not to oppose Priebke’s transfer.
Such opposition appeared unlikely.
Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella reportedly said last Friday that Priebke “is no longer an Argentine resident.”
“He is a terrible immigrant who has done nothing for the country and has a criminal past at an international level,” Di Tella added.
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.