Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

LITHUANIA: Slow Pace Of War Crime Investigation Drawing U.S. Fire

Edvinas Butkus

VILNIUS, Apr 10 1996 (IPS) - Faced with an increasingly angry outcry in the United States, Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas has taken a ‘personal interest’ in a ‘just settlement’ of the case of suspected 1940s war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis.

Prosecutors in the U.S. are in the midst of court action to strip Lileikis of his citizenship and want Lithuania to be ready to put him on trial before they deport him. But local media say the prosecutors’ office has not yet gathered sufficient evidence to press charges — a claim that has infuriated U.S. officials.

They are accusing Lithuania of unwillingness to face up to its citizens’ role in the genocide of Jews during World War II, which claimed the lives of 94 percent of Lithuania’s pre-war Jewish population of around 220,000.

Under U.S. law, the government cannot bring its own charges against Lileikis. Now 88, he was chief of security in German- occupied Vilnius during World War II and, say the U.S. Justice Department, signed orders sending thousands of the city’s Lithuanian Jews to their death at Nazi behest.

Between 1941 and 1944, 55,000 of Vilnius’ 60,000 Jewish residents died in the Holocaust. At least 40,000 are believed to have been individually shot to death in woods outside the city, in a all-out effort to wipe out its once-thriving Jewish community.

“Captured records,” say the prosecutors, “show that Lileikis repeatedly signed and issued orders directing that arrested Jews be held… in the Vilnius Hard Labour Prison, and then that they be turned over to the infamous ‘Special Detachment’ and the German security police for execution.”

Lileikis does not deny being head of the Vilnius security forces during the war, but does deny signing the orders. He says the papers are a forgery. He has also refused to give evidence to U.S. judges, claiming his constitutional ‘fifth amendment’ right not to give evidence on the grounds that it may incriminate him.

Confronted with a furious letter from 49 U.S. congressmen demanding Lileikis’ immediate prosecution, Brazauskas wrote back in March to argue that Lithuanian legal institutions were “trying very carefully” to clarify evidence, to avoid the risk of a mis- trial or the case being thrown out through lack of evidence.

“The Republic of Lithuania, like every democratic state, legally stipulates that only a court can determine the guilt of a crime and make a decision concerning the accused,” he said.

The congressmen have already rejected this excuse. “It is truly outrageous that in the face of overwhelming evidence of his war crimes, Aleksandras Lileikis continues to escape justice,’ said the congressmen’s original letter to Brazauskas.

They said Lithuania should request Lileikis’ extradition and put him on trial in Vilnius “for crimes committed in Lithuania” a step which would “be the swiftest path to justice”.

But Gintaras Svedas, secretary of the ministry of justice, says Lithuania cannot demand Lileikis’s extradition until its prosecutor general has completed investigations. The Baltic News Service has quoted local justice ministry officials as saying a prosecution case was 95 percent complete but “certain details” were missing.

In January 1995, the Lithuanian prosecutor general’s special investigations centre declined to press charges against Lileikis citing lack of evidence. But under pressure from the U.S. and Jewish organisations worldwide, the case was reviewed again.

The prosecutor still has to evaluate archive materials in Germany. The Germans have agreed to release the papers but will not allow them out of the country. The prosecutors must travel to Germany to inspect the documents.

The case rests on Lileikis’ alleged signature on the signed orders to transfer Jews arrested in Vilnius to German security services, which organised their murder or transfer to death camps.

The Lithuanians want to have the signatures investigated by an independent commission, a process that may take months. The issue of forgery has been raised by other accused war criminals, who claim the former Soviet rulers of Lithuania released forged documents implicating Lithuanians in the West of war crimes.

This is an issue in the case of 87-year-old Kazimieras Gimzauskas, another former member of the Lithuanian security services during the war who denies assisting his German masters in their programme of genocide. The U.S. Justice Department has also filed a suit to strip him of his U.S. citizenship.

Gimzauskas, who left the U.S. as the investigators closed in, has lived in Vilnius since August 1993. He has declared “categorically that, while working in the Lithuanian security police, I had no connection with the Jewish genocide” in a statement published last November by Vilnius daily Lietuvos Aidas.

He claimed instead that he was in fact a double agent working with the anti-Nazi resistance. Lithuanian prosecutors say there are no documents in the Lithuanian central state archives backing his claim. All in all, there is very little archival documentation of anti-Nazi activity by Lithuanians.

The U.S. Office of Special Investigations states that documents signed by Gimzauskas and found in Lithuanian archives, testify that he personally ordered the arrest, investigation, imprisonment and extradition of civilians, including many Jews, to Nazi henchmen.

‘He was in a position of considerable authority and was instrumental in the death of thousands of Jews,’ said Neal Sher, who helped investigate Gimzauskas as the former director of the Office of Special Investigations.

Sher, now executive director of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, urged Lithuania to prosecute Gimzauskas, but said told reporters in the U.S. last month that it had “not been very cooperative”. He claimed that Lithuania “was getting a reputation like Paraguay’s as a safe haven for Nazi criminals”.

Gimzauskas began working in the Lithuanian security police in 1931 and was arrested by the Russian NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, during the first Soviet occupation in 1940.

When the Nazis invaded he was released and in July 1941 was appointed director of the interrogation department of state security in Kaunas. He stayed in post under Nazi direction until the Russians returned in 1944.

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