Accused War Criminal Bound for a Soviet Fate : U.S. Due to Deport Man Who Was Sentenced to Death, Then Tried Later--Both In Absentia

Times Staff Writer

After six years of legal conflict, the Justice Department is preparing for the first time to deport an accused Nazi collaborator to the Soviet Union, where he faces a preordained sentence of death.

While the Justice Department has sought for years to deport Karl Linnas, a 67-year-old immigrant from Estonia--now a part of the Soviet Union--its impending action has divided American ethnic communities and stirred misgivings among liberals and conservatives alike.

Leading Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, have strongly supported the efforts to deport Linnas. East European groups, led by the California-based Coalition for Constitutional Justice and Security, have bitterly protested the government's reliance on Soviet-supplied evidence.

Rights Group's Plea

Amnesty International, the human rights organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and opposes capital punishment in all cases, has urged the Justice Department to reconsider sending Linnas to the Soviet Union, citing "grave doubts" about the fairness of war-crimes proceedings there.

Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, is representing Linnas. At the other end of the political spectrum, Patrick J. Buchanan, the White House communications director, has also voiced support for Linnas' cause.

Linnas is a retired land surveyor who lived with his wife and three daughters for many years on Long Island. A death sentence against him was handed down in absentia by a Soviet court in 1962. (The verdict was reported--apparently inadvertently--in the Dec. 7, 1961, issue of the official Soviet journal Socialist Legality--several weeks before the trial took place in January, 1962.)

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Linnas' deportation on Jan. 27, after rejecting an earlier petition to hear his case. He has been held in a New York City jail since federal agents arrested him last April on the ground that he might flee the country.

Justice Department officials have indicated that Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III may approve Linnas' deportation within a week, unless his family and lawyers can find him an alternative home country.

"There is nothing, legally, that we can do to prevent them from saying goodby and sending him off," Anu Linnas, one of his daughters, said in an interview. "We're scrambling. We've tried 50 countries so far, and we've had rejections from about 30. Is no other country willing to accept him?"

Since Linnas' U.S. citizenship was revoked in 1981, several federal courts have ruled that he could be deported because he lied on his visa application in 1951, when he said that he was a student, when in fact, there was substantial reason to believe that he had taken part in rounding up and murdering Jews and had run a Nazi concentration camp in his native Estonia.

Jury Trial Lacking

Linnas and his family deny the charges. They argue that he has never had the benefit of a criminal trial before a jury or an opportunity to confront witnesses who have testified against him. All the evidence against Linnas, including videotaped depositions from four Soviet citizens, came from the Soviet government, under a broad cooperative agreement with the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations.

While U.S. courts generally accept Soviet evidence in such cases, a number of jurists and lawyers--as well as the East European immigrant community--have voiced misgivings about its reliability.

In his decision revoking Linnas' citizenship, U.S. District Court Judge Jacob Mishler in New York ruled that the Soviet-supplied evidence against him "overwhelmingly supported" charges that he had taken part in atrocities and had run a concentration camp. The Co1970435104upholding Mishler's decision, noted that the videotaped Soviet testimony made it clear that Linnas' actions "were such as to offend the decency of any civilized society."

Clark, who began representing Linnas last summer, said that an independent translator's careful review of the videotapes found flaws and discrepancies that might have led the courts to discount the testimony if the Intourist translator in the Soviet courtroom had given a faithful rendition into English.

Name-Calling in Court

In particular, Clark said, the Soviet official who presided over the taking of testimony used prejudicial language in front of all four witnesses in the case--repeatedly referring to Linnas as a "fascist war criminal."

"We have no way of knowing who these witnesses really are, where they came from, how they got there," Clark said in an interview. Moreover, he said, although the Soviets provided documents to show that Linnas ran a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Estonia, it is "inherently implausible" that the Germans would have placed a 21- or 22-year-old native in charge of a prison camp in his own occupied country.

Supporters of Linnas in the East European immigrant community, among them the Baltic-American Freedom League, maintain that the chief of the camp actually was a German officer, Fritz Giessen.

Clark described Linnas as "an ardent nationalist, passionately devoted to the old country." When the Soviets tried Linnas in absentia in 1962, Clark noted, he was active in the United States in the movement to free Estonia from Soviet control, which dates from World War II, and that it may have been that activity that prompted the Soviets to pick Linnas as a target for retribution.

Internal Memos Cited

According to internal memos from the Justice and State departments, circulated by East European groups, the Soviets have been seeking custody of Linnas ever since the Justice Department first negotiated a controversial cooperation agreement with Soviet prosecutors in Moscow in 1980.

The memos show that the Justice Department was wary of "public relations" problems that might arise from deporting a former war refugee to the Soviet Union under sentence of death--but they argue that Moscow might become less helpful in prosecuting accused Nazi collaborators if the United States fails to hand over Linnas.

"The Soviets want Linnas," Assistant Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott wrote in a draft memo to Meese last year. "If we attempt to send Linnas somewhere else after we have publicly designated the U.S.S.R. as the country of deportation, . . . there is a serious possibility that they may decrease their level of cooperation with (the department's Office of Special Investigations)."

Patrick Korten, speaking for the Justice Department, said that the memos were authentic but cautioned that the Trott memo appeared to be an "early version" of the one sent to Meese.

According to other memos, Vadim Kuznetsov, a senior Soviet diplomat in Washington, met with OSI officials twice last July to emphasize that deporting Linnas to the Soviet Union would be the "crowning achievement" of six years of cooperation between the two countries in prosecuting alleged war criminals.

In a memo to internal files in the Linnas case, OSI deputy director Michael Wolf said that Kuznetsov understood that executing Linnas immediately upon his return "might pose some public relations problems" because it would "appear that Linnas would never be able to defend himself in a trial."

In view of this, the memo continued, Kuznetsov said that Moscow was considering putting aside or ignoring the 1962 death sentence and conducting a new trial.

Family Seeks Trial

Linnas' daughter Anu said in an interview that he and his family "absolutely" would agree to a criminal or war-crimes trial before a jury, with cross-examination of witnesses, if that were legally possible in the United States or Israel. She said they have asked Israeli authorities to accept her father for trial, but that "they said no, with no reason given."

"We would do anything for a (criminal) trial, here, a trial in Israel," said Anu Linnas, who lives in the Washington area. "But please, not to the Soviet Union, not to execution. If he goes there, it's over."

"We're on pins and needles every day now. We're asking (the Justice Department) to be humane about this, at least to let us have a farewell. We don't want to wake up one morning and find that he's gone."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World